CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Today we observe World AIDS Day around the world and here in Charleston.
Many years ago, a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS was a death sentence. Not now. People who are diagnosed with this disease can live full lives, if they can afford the medications.
Prior to the protease inhibitors, almost everyone died, including my partner, Rob Cervi. Only a few months before his passing, the protease inhibitors were approved, too late for him and for many of my close friends.
What is AIDS? Lots of people don't know. Human immunodeficiency virus infection/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) is a disease of the human immune system. During the initial infection a person may experience a brief period of influenza-like illness. This is typically followed by a prolonged period without symptoms. As the illness progresses it interferes more and more with the immune system, making people much more likely to get infections, including opportunistic infections, and tumors that do not usually affect people with working immune systems.
HIV is transmitted primarily via unprotected sexual intercourse (including anal and even oral sex), contaminated blood transfusions and hypodermic needles and from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding. Some bodily fluids, such as saliva and tears, do not transmit HIV. Prevention of HIV infection, primarily through safe sex and needle-exchange programs, is a key strategy to control the spread of the disease. There is no cure or vaccine; however, antiretroviral treatment can slow the course of the disease and may lead to a near-normal life expectancy.
While antiretroviral treatment reduces the risk of death and complications from the disease, these medications are expensive and may be associated with side effects.
Genetic research indicates that HIV originated in west-central Africa during the early 20th century. AIDS was first recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1981 and its cause -- HIV infection -- was identified in the early part of the decade. Since its discovery, AIDS has caused nearly 30 million deaths (as of 2009). As of 2010, approximately 34 million people have contracted HIV globally. AIDS is considered a pandemic -- a disease outbreak present over a large area and actively spreading.
HIV/AIDS has had a great impact on society, both as an illness and as a source of discrimination. The disease also has significant economic impacts. There are many misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, such as the belief that it can be transmitted by casual non-sexual contact. The disease has also become subject to many controversies involving organized religion.