World AIDS Day 2011: Can We Really Get to Zero?

By Guest Blogger

The fight to end HIV/AIDS continues today December 1, 2011, World AIDS Day. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first reported cases of HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Despite victories in the years since the first diagnoses, there are many hurdles that need to be overcome in “Getting to Zero – zero new infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS related deaths,” the theme for World AIDS Day this year.

Since the first reported cases of AIDS in 1981, the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) estimates 1.7 million people in the U.S. have been infected with HIV, with 615,000 people who have already died. More than 25 million people have died of AIDS worldwide. Today, 33.4 million people across the globe live with HIV/AIDS. Every nine-and-a-half minutes, someone new is infected with the disease.

Certain demographic groups are targeted as more at-risk populations than others. Almost all those living with HIV (97%) live in low- and middle-income countries, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa (67%). Within the U.S., African Americans are impacted the most and account for nearly 50 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases, even though African Americans make up only 13 percent of the population. According to AVERTing HIV and AIDS, three quarters of those infected with HIV in Washington, DC are African Americans and DC has the highest transmission rate among African Americans in the country. Likewise, Hispanics and Latinos are disproportionately impacted: 17% of Hispanics in the U.S. live with HIV; Hispanics account for 17% of new infections.

Women have emerged in recent years as a growing at-risk population accounting for 27% of annual new HIV infections, and 25% of those living with HIV in the US. Black women in particular account for 30 percent of new HIV infections each year and are infected at a rate 15 times higher than white women, according to 2009 CDC statistics. Even more daunting, AIDS is the leading cause of death among young black women ages 25-34.

HIV/AIDS has also become an increasing problem for rural and urban communities in the Southeast United States. The CDC reports the rate of diagnosed AIDS cases in the Southeast in 2007 to be much higher than other regions: 9.2 per 100,000 people. This is compared to 2.5 in the Midwest, 3.9 in the West, and 5.6 in the Northeast. Southern cities topping the CDC’s list of diagnosis rates in 2008 include: Miami, Atlanta, Memphis, Orlando, New Orleans, and Charlotte.

There is still no cure for HIV. UNAIDS reports that women make up half of all HIV infections. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls account for 60 percent of all HIV/AIDS infections. There are several factors that contribute to the spread of the disease including violence against women, abstinence-only education, and the social stigmas that continue to surround the disease.

According to UNAIDS, seventy percent of women have experienced violence in their lifetime and women who are experiencing violence or have experienced violence are less likely to negotiate safe sex practices and less likely seek testing and treatment.

Abstinence-only education also plays a critical role is rapid spread of the disease. “Only 38 percent of young women have accurate, comprehensive knowledge of HIV,” says UNAIDS. “In Africa and Latin America, girls with higher levels of education tend to delay first sexual experience and are more likely to insist that their partner use a condom.”

The United States has helped fuel abstinence-only education in countries that have disproportionately high rates of HIV/AIDS. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) gives money to prime partners who then redistribute the funds to sub-partners for AIDS relief projects in specific countries around the world. PEPFAR allows these prime and sub-partners to give money to groups for abstinence-only and be-faithful programs. A report released in 2006 indicates that a third of the budget through PEPFAR is going towards these abstinence-only and be-faithful groups or faith-based groups, ignoring the scientific knowledge that comprehensive sex education helps reduce the spread of the disease.

Although scientific research and prevention has come a long way since the first reported cases of AIDS, today it continues to take hold on the lives of women, children, people of color, and other disenfranchised groups. Student leaders, activists, government representatives and community leaders need to continue to make sure that money is going towards reducing violence against women and promoting comprehensive sex education programs.

If the world truly wants to “get to zero,” we need to get more people tested and we need to have an open discussion about how HIV is transmitted, which  means an open discussion on sex education and drug use. We need to rally to increase access to affordable care and treatment, and inspire those impacted to continue the fight. This World AIDS Day, we need to take action.

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