Could an End to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic Be in Sight?

Could an End to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic Be in Sight?

According to a new report from the U.N., the HIV/AIDS epidemic that has been raging since the early 1980s could be brought to an end by 2030 if world health officials step up their efforts to prevent the spread of the virus and treat those already infected. HIV/AIDS has infected about 78 million people since the epidemic began, and has killed about 39 million of those people.

In its latest global report, the UNAIDS program said that the rate of new HIV infections has fallen by 38 percent since 2001 and the rate of AIDS-related deaths has fallen 35 percent since it reached its peak in 2005. Antiretroviral drugs can prevent transmission of the virus and prevent the health problems associated with untreated AIDS. U.N. officials say expanding access to treatment is the key to controlling and even eradicating the virus.

A Global Epidemic

HIV/AIDS, a viral disease that causes weakened immunity and death by opportunistic infection, spreads through contact with blood, semen and breast milk. It is often transmitted during sexual contact or from mother to child during birth or breastfeeding. The first cases of AIDS in the United States were identified in 1981. Though the disease was capable of killing its victims relatively quickly in the early days of the epidemic, antiretroviral therapy or ART can now be used to suppress the HIV virus. With HIV/AIDS treatment, this disease can become a manageable condition. ART does not cure HIV/AIDS, but it can significantly slow the progression of the disease and keep infected people healthy.

ART can also prevent the spread of the disease to uninfected individuals. The World Health Organization (WHO) now recommends the use of antiretroviral drugs as a preventative measure among those who are at high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. These include young women, children and others living in Congo, Central African Republic, Russia, Indonesia, South Sudan and Nigeria, where people are three times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS than they are in the United States.

HIV/AIDS Rates Declining

Seventy-eight million people around the world have been infected with HIV/AIDS since the early 1980s. Thirty-nine million have died. But there’s hope for an end to the epidemic, according to UNAIDS. The rate of new HIV infections are at their lowest-ever levels, with just 2.1 million new infections since the turn of the century. The rate of new HIV/AIDS infections has dropped by 13 percent over the past three years alone, and AIDS-related deaths are down too — 35 percent since their highest point in 2005.

Rates of new HIV/AIDS infections among children are also encouraging — new childhood HIV/AIDS infections have dropped off by 59 percent since 2001. In 21 of the hardest-hit African countries, rates of childhood HIV/AIDS infection are now below 200,000 for the first time.

More people than ever now have access to the life-saving medication they need to live with HIV/AIDS and prevent spreading the disease to partners and children. Almost 13 million of the 35 million people currently infected with HIV/AIDS now have access to treatment. In 2013 alone, 2.3 million more people were able to get access to treatment.

A Long Road Ahead

HIV/AIDS Testing and Education

While the news is encouraging, the fight against HIV/AIDS is far from over. UNAIDS executive director, Michel Sidibe, has said that efforts to increase access to treatment must be ramped up over the next five years. “If we accelerate all HIV scale-up by 2020, we will be on track to end the epidemic by 2030. If not, we risk significantly increasing the time it would take — adding a decade, if not more,” he told Reuters.

If world health officials are able to control the epidemic by 2030, 18 million new infections could be prevented and more than 11 million lives could be saved between now and 2020.

Cost is a factor for many people who struggle to gain access to HIV/AIDS drugs. In the United States, people who don’t have insurance may find buying any prescription drugs at all, much less ART drugs, cost prohibitive. Filling prescriptions from a Canadian Pharmacy can mitigate the cost for Americans, but for people in the developing world, that may not be an option. For UNAIDS, getting these people access to medication is a priority.

Access to HIV/AIDS testing — and education on its importance — needs to be improved, too. An estimated 19 million of the 35 million people infected with HIV/AIDS worldwide don’t know they have it. In the United States, one in six people infected with HIV/AIDS, or about 15.8 percent, don’t know they have the disease. Knowing your HIV/AIDS status is essential if treatment is to be effective. ART is most effective when it can be administered before the HIV progresses into full-blown AIDs.

Despite the fact that 35 million people around the world are currently infected with HIV/AIDS — and 19 million don’t even know it — the U.N. is confident that the epidemic can finally be controlled by 2030. Whether world health officials are able to bring this public health threat under control in the next 15 years, or whether it will take 25 years or longer, depends on how quickly the U.N. can expand access to treatment to the millions who still don’t have it.