Sunday marks the 25th annual World AIDS Day, an international effort to raise awareness about the fight to eradicate HIV/AIDS. After a quarter century of activism around this issue, there’s been a lot of progress.
Of course, we haven’t yet solved the problem for good. Although the ongoing work to develop an effective HIV vaccine typically inspires breathless headlines about a “potential cure in sight,” there’s still a very long way to go before we achieve that scientific reality.
But even though there’s no cure on the immediate horizon for the HIV virus, that doesn’t mean we can’t beat AIDS. We’ve made huge strides toward preventing the spread of the virus and extending the lifespan of HIV-positive people, efforts that could eventually lead to an HIV-free generation even without a clinically approved vaccine. Here are the methods that can work, and could use some more investment:
Drug treatments can effectively prevent HIV-positive people from spreading the virus.
The development of antiretroviral drugs — a treatment that can help prevent HIV transmission from mother to child — has been one of the most critical scientific advances in the fight against AIDS. In order to contain the virus’ spread, it’s important to prevent pediatric AIDS, and the international community has been largely successful in this area. This June, the one millionth HIV-free baby was born to a mother with the virus. And seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the region that has been hit the hardest by the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic, have cut their rates of children’s HIV infections in half since 2009.
These gains are made possible because the international community is effectively expanding access to antiretroviral drugs. By the end of last year, about 9.7 million people in low- and middle-income countries were receiving this type of HIV treatment — an increase of nearly 20 percent in just one year. But there’s still more work to be done. The United Nations wants to increase the number of people who have access to antiretroviral drugs to 15 million individuals by 2015. And here in the United States, the positive impact of these drugs has remained largely stratified along racial and economic lines.
More comprehensive sexual health education can help eliminate the stigma around HIV.
Even after decades of activism around this issue, many Americans still remain extremely misinformed about the nature of the HIV virus. Some people incorrectly assume that HIV-positive people aren’t safe to be around, or naively believe that they’re not personally at risk for HIV because they’re heterosexual. This pervasive stigma contributes to the fact that many young Americans don’t have access to the resources that will help them effectively prevent the spread of HIV, and therefore continue to put themselves at risk for contracting the virus.
Education and outreach efforts can change this. The positive effects of teaching kids more about HIV are clearly evident — the HIV rates are lower in the states that require public schools to instruct students about HIV in sex ed classes. Fortunately, schools across the country are slowly catching on. Some school districts in areas with extremely high rates of HIV infections are beginning to push to expand comprehensive sex ed.
Building a better condom could encourage more people to protect themselves against HIV.
All of the sex ed classes in the world won’t necessarily convince people to use a condom if they don’t want to. In fact, it’s estimated that only five percent of men around the world use a condom when they have sex — and most of them say that’s because condoms make sex less pleasurable. So, in addition to expanding education campaigns, the work to encourage safer sex may also involve updating the barrier methods that can protect people against the virus.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is hoping to do just that. This past spring, the foundation launched a new campaign to encourage entrepreneurs to submit their ideas to make a better condom, promising to invest up to $1 million to help the winner execute their design. And in November, the Gates announced 11 innovative designs that will move on to the next round. Most of the new ideas focus on making condoms that are thinner, more flexible, and feel more like human skin — innovations that will hopefully make them more pleasurable to use.
Better medical care can help HIV-positive people live longer and healthier lives.
Of course, combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic isn’t just about preventing the spread of the virus; it also involves treating the millions of people who are currently living with HIV. Here in the U.S., there’s been a lot of progress in this area, as the life expectancy for people living with the virus continues to rise. Thanks to recent gains under health care reform, that trend will likely continue. Under Obamacare, HIV-positive people won’t be denied insurance coverage because of their pre-existing condition. They also won’t reach arbitrary limits on the amount of care that their insurance companies are willing to pay for. HIV-positive individuals no longer have to be diagnosed with AIDS to qualify for Medicaid coverage. And thanks to the health reform law, HIV testing is now free of charge during a regular check-up, which will encourage more Americans to figure out their status.
The United States has recently taken steps to improve medical care for people living with HIV in other ways, too. Last month, Congress voted to end the outdated ban on HIV-positive people’s organ transplants.
In fact, the biggest barrier to beating AIDS isn’t necessarily the lack of a cure or the absence of an effective vaccine. As Slate’s Hugh Ryan points out, the key could actually be the fact that the HIV/AIDS epidemic mainly affects marginalized communities: the LGBT community, black women, and impoverished nations in the developing world. “If we can stop AIDS and have chosen not to, the hard truth is that it is because certain lives don’t seem worth saving: They would cost too much, or have brought it upon themselves, or aren’t our concern, or don’t even exist in our worldview,” Ryan notes. “Until we see every life as equal, we will never end AIDS.”