2011-12-14 / Opinion

AIDS still a concern

OTHER VOICES

Thirty years after the acquired immune deficiency syndrome was recognized as an epidemic, there is much to celebrate in terms of the progress fighting AIDS.

New drugs and treatment regimens mean that people with AIDS are leading longer and more productive lives than ever before.

At the same time, there has been only nominal progress in terms of a vaccine or cure for the disease, and a new report indicates that nearly a quarter- million Americans are unaware that they are infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which is widely believed to be the cause of AIDS.

Once a year, in December, the world stops momentarily and remembers that AIDS is still with us. From the earliest years, when the disease was first recognized as a new and horrifying condition, AIDS has been the disease relegated to the sidelines, primarily because if chiefly affects gay men.

Even when it attracted national attention, it did so only temporarily. Like so many other news stories that have been around for years, AIDS has fallen from its prominent place on the national stage and has instead been relegated to the collective zeitgeist. For many, it is merely one additional background concern, along with world hunger, the threat of nuclear war, and countless other worries.

But for millions of people, AIDS is not some sort of existential fear; it is a part of their everyday existence. And their numbers are growing.

In New Bedford alone, some 500 people are among the approximately 17,600 in Massachusetts living with HIV/AIDS, with perhaps 8 or 10 times that number believed to be infected but not diagnosed. An average of 19 new cases are identified each year in New Bedford.

The Centers for Disease Control estimate that in the United States alone, 240,000 people are infected with HIV and are unaware of it. This is part of the reason why, even with extensive public health education efforts, the number of new AIDS cases continues to rise each year. The CDC also noted that approximately 60 percent of people with HIV are not getting medications to treat the condition on a regular basis.

Globally, the United Nations reports that the number of people with HIV is beginning to level off. Although that sounds like good news, consider what else the U.N. shared: 34 million people were infected with HIV at the end of 2010, and there were 2.7 million new HIV infections last year.

It would be easy to let these numbers overwhelm us, or to simply put AIDS where it usually resides for too many of us: somewhere in the back of our minds. But in addition to the public health campaigns and testing drives organized by the federal government, there are things that we as individuals can do to help staunch the spread of AIDS.

For example, we could dispel the perception that AIDS is a disease somehow limited to gay men. The fact is that anyone, heterosexual or homosexual, can contract and spread AIDS. Removing this false sense that the disease cannot touch us would be one step toward understanding that its presence affects all of us.

If we as a nation are willing to keep attention focused on AIDS, perhaps 30 years from now, we will be celebrating the eradication of the disease instead noting yet another grim milestone.

— Standard Times of New Bedford (Mass.)

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