December 1st is World AIDS Day, a day dedicated to unity and support for the estimated 36.7 million people living with HIV. Since the virus was first identified in 1984, major advances have been made in detection, prevention, treatment and awareness, In fact, new HIV infections have been reduced by 47% since the peak of the virus in 1996. Last year, there were roughly 1.8 million new infections compared to approximately 3.4 million in 1996. But the virus is still a major threat. World AIDS Day is a crucial initiative, as it serves as global reminder that the virus remains a major health concern.
Sadly, many people still don’t fully understand the facts about AIDS and HIV, including how to properly protect themselves from contracting the virus. For people living with HIV, they have to endure not only the chronic pain and psychological toll of the virus, but also with the societal stigmas and discrimination.
While significant strides have been made, the belief behind World AIDS Day is that there is still an urgent need to “remind the public and government that HIV has not gone away” and “to raise money, increase awareness, fight prejudice and improve education.”
HIV and AIDS are not the same
The terms are often used interchangeably, but HIV and AIDS are not the same thing. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. People cannot have AIDS without first being infected with HIV. With proper diagnosis and treatment, people who have HIV do not necessarily develop AIDS. They may not even develop the painful symptoms of HIV infection.
AIDS is a stage of HIV
There are various stages of the HIV virus. If it reaches advanced stages where the body’s immune system has been badly compromised, then the term AIDS is used to define that stage of infection. It is the most severe stage of HIV. Those who are diagnosed with HIV “are diagnosed with AIDS if they have a CD4 count of less than 200 cells/mm3 or if they have certain opportunistic infections. Without treatment, people with AIDS typically survive about 3 years.”
The body’s CD4 T-cells are considered “helper” cells. They work with the immune system to fight off infections by triggering the body’s natural defenses. In HIV, the virus actually attacks its own healthy CD4 cells and kills them, leaving the body vulnerable to illnesses and infection. Many of these would not be life-threatening to a person with a healthy CD4 count (500-1,500), but for a person with AIDS (less than 200), they can be deadly.
Educating the public to save lives
Promoting awareness about AIDS and HIV globally is a critical step in reducing the stigma associated with them. The public’s lack of understanding about how the virus was transmitted created a blanket of fear and confusion that in many ways still exists 34 years later. This hope for fighting prejudices and improving education is at the core of World AIDS Day.
In 1985 at the height of the AIDS epidemic, 3 year old Eve Van Grafhorst was one of the first-ever children who contracted HIV. She got the virus through a blood transfusion she received at birth. Eve’s older sister, Dana Lee, recently discussed her sister and the public’s reaction to the diagnosis. The family was “shunned, and even forced into hiding, before eventually being hounded from the country.” Dana noted that the “neighbors had built a six-foot fence to keep us out, or to keep the AIDS out, I guess” and that no one in her community had ever reached out to apologize for their behavior.
Eve succumbed to the virus at the age of 11. But her story, which is now 25 years old, touched lives and the struggles she endured inspired others around the world to take action to promote awareness and improve the lives of people living with HIV.