Today marks World AIDS Day, an annual public health initiative to raise awareness about and mobilize support for combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic around the globe. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out in a speech earlier this week, significant advances in HIV research and treatment suggest that an “AIDS-free generation” may be in sight.
Clinton’s optimism is shared by the United Nations, whose officials recently noted they believe eradicating AIDS is “entirely feasible” thanks to the global community’s dedicated efforts against the epidemic. Here are five important advancements we’ve made toward that goal over the past year:
1. Increased access to HIV testing. Thanks to medical experts’ recommendation that Americans between the ages of 15 and 65 get regularly screened for the virus, annual HIV testing will now be covered under Obamacare. And in addition to removing some of the cost barriers to getting tested, this past year also included advances in the ease and availability of HIV testing. The FDA approved the first over-the-counter test that can be taken at home, and the CDC rolled out a pilot program to allow Americans in low-income areas to get tested for HIV at their local pharmacy. Since the CDC estimates that as many as 20 percent of the 1.1 million Americans who have HIV aren’t aware they’re infected with the virus, taking steps to ensure that testing is affordable and accessible is more important than ever.
2. Improved coverage under Obamacare. Before Obamacare, HIV-positive Americans often struggled to enroll in private insurance plans — but since insurers will no longer be able to discriminate against people with HIV based on their pre-existing condition, Obamacare will ensure that more HIV-positive individuals can access health care. Furthermore, the health law eliminates lifetime caps on coverage, so people with the virus won’t reach limits on the amount of HIV treatment their insurance companies are willing to cover for them. Obamacare also stipulates that HIV-positive Americans don’t have to have AIDS before accessing Medicaid coverage — an old requirement for participating in the program — so those with HIV won’t have to wait until they’re sicker before getting the health insurance they need.
3. Better, simpler treatments for the virus. In July, the World Health Organization noted that future HIV infections could be totally eliminated with the help of the current “arsenal of drugs” developed to combat the virus. And that same month, the FDA officially approved Stribild, an oral pill that combines four medications in one to treat HIV-positive individuals. Continued advancements in highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) medications — which public health researchers credit with significantly reducing HIV/AIDS-related deaths since 1996, when HAART treatments were first introduced — are helping to ease the treatment process, although gains in this area continue to be stratified along racial and economic lines.
4. Breakthroughs in HIV research. Obamacare allocates more funding for HIV research and prevention, including $30 million from a new preventative health fund that is specifically designated for HIV education programs, public health initiatives, and scientific investments. And scientists continue to make important progress in developing new treatments and vaccines for the HIV virus, including a potential vaccine that could eventually prevent HIV infection by producing disease-fighting cells. Scientists also continue to advance toward eradicating latent HIV, which has posed a challenge because the virus is not impacted by other types of treatment when it is dormant in the body.
5. Raised life expectancy for HIV-positive individuals. The CDC estimates just in just a few years, half of HIV-positive Americans will be over the age of 50. Described as the “graying” of the HIV-positive community, the shifting demographics point to the fact that people with HIV are now living longer and healthier lives. Thanks to effective treatment methods for the virus, as well as recent scientific innovation that allows more HIV-positive individuals to receive organ transplants, a positive diagnosis for the virus is no longer a death sentence. In fact, according to a recent study, the life expectancy for HIV-positive people in Britain is fast approaching the national average.