Published on December 01, 2019

Hands holding red ribbon for AIDS awareness

World AIDS Day: Remembering the past, looking to the future

by Autumn Bishop, LMH Health

“My name is Ryan White. I am sixteen years old. I have hemophilia, and I have AIDS.”

These words, delivered from a calm teenage boy to the President’s Commission on AIDS in 1988, belied the disease ravaging Ryan’s body that would lead to his death just two years later. Each year on December 1, the world unites to observe World AIDS Day and to remember Ryan and all the others lost to HIV and AIDS.

UNAIDS estimates that 37.9 million people globally live with HIV, a number that includes an estimated 1.1 million Americans. Of those Americans, nearly 1 in 7 are not aware that they’re infected with the disease.

Scientists believe that HIV originally came from a virus particular to chimpanzees in West Africa in the 1930s and was transmitted to humans through the transfer of blood through hunting. From there, the virus spread throughout the continent and to other parts of the world.

Unusually high rates of rare forms of pneumonia and cancer were reported in young, gay men in 1981, and the disease was initially called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). But by the end of the year, cases were also identified in IV drug users. The following year, hemophiliacs with no other risk factors were also reported to be affected by the disease. It wasn’t until 1982 when the Centers for Disease Control defined and began to use the term AIDS – Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Treatments for HIV and AIDS have come a long way since the early days of the disease research. Patients who may have been prescribed a cocktail of antiretroviral therapy (ART) drugs in the 1980s or a triple-drug cocktail in the 1990s now have other choices, said Dr. Jennifer Schrimsher, infectious disease physician with the Internal Medicine Group.

“Advances in treatment - the development of single-tablet regimens (STR), Integrase inhibitors (INSTI), and moving to different formulations of some retroviral drugs such as Tenofovir - have shifted care for HIV and AIDS,” she said. “STRs simplified regimens and increased compliance with treatment, and INSTIs are highly effective drugs with a higher resistance threshold. Changing the formulation of Tenofovir – a key part of many regimens - has eliminated major side effects of the drug.”

While the most effective way to avoid HIV infection continues to be practicing safe sex and not sharing infected needles, new prevention methods such as PrEP are gaining more exposure. PrEP is a prescribed medication to stop HIV from infecting the body.

“I do regularly recommend PrEP to patients,” Schrimsher said. “It’s very effective when taken properly, though it’s not 100%. It’s still important to use safer sexual practices. You can still acquire HIV and there are many other STDs more common than HIV that the drug doesn’t protect against.”

Though advances in treatment and prevention are moving us closer to a cure for HIV, stigma and discrimination continue to be part of the experience for people living with HIV. 

“Fortunately, this is also changing. Living with HIV has become a more integral part of the dating scene,” Schrimsher said. “It’s become more acceptable, almost a norm, to ask someone their HIV status before engaging in sex or starting a relationship.”

When asked if she thought there would be a cure for HIV in the next 20 years, Schrimsher was hopeful.

“I certainly hope so, and I do think so,” she said. “There are promising studies on the horizon. Although, I’ve been saying that for nearly 20 years.”

Autumn Bishop is marketing communications manager for LMH Health.

World AIDS Day: Remembering the past, looking to the future

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