This Issue | Editorial | Feature | E-mail

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
World Health Organization

World AIDS Day

Edited by Rhadjena P. Hilliard, MD, MPH

Guyana Journal, December 2009

World AIDS Day was established by The World Health Organization in 1988 to raise awareness and focus attention on the global AIDS epidemic. In 2007, approximately 33.2 million people lived with the disease worldwide, and an estimated 2.1 million people died of AIDS, including 330,000 children. Over three-quarters of these deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, though many areas in the developing world have been severely affected as well.

Every nine-and-a-half minutes, a new person is infected with HIV in the United States, resulting in 56,300 new infections per year. Each year in the United States, there are more than 14,000 AIDS-related deaths. In all, there are more than one million people in the United States with AIDS, and one in five of these people (or approximately 250,000) does not know that he/she has AIDS. Many of these people may unknowingly transmit the disease to others.

Governments, national AIDS programs, faith organizations, community organizations, and individuals all play a role not only in promoting World AIDS Day and raising awareness of the disease, but also in providing education, support and comfort to those who continue to live with this disease.

What is AIDS? Acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), is a disease caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). HIV is a condition that causes the immune system to stop working properly, such that the body becomes less able to fight against infectious diseases and tumors.

How does AIDS spread? AIDS is spread through direct contact of mucous membranes or the bloodstream with a bodily fluid (such as blood, semen, preejaculatory fluid, vaginal fluid, and breast milk) containing HIV. Contact can involve anal, vaginal or oral sex, or can result from blood transfusions and sharing of contaminated hypodermic needles. A mother can also expose her baby to AIDS during pregnancy, childbirth, or through breastfeeding.

Who is at risk for developing AIDS? While anyone can develop AIDS, men who have sex with men (MSM) account for more than half of new HIV infections and nearly half of all people living with HIV. Although African Americans make up only 12% of the United States population, they account for nearly half of both new HIV infections and people living with HIV. New HIV infection rates are 6 times higher in black men than in white men, and those in black women are 15 times higher than in white women. Hispanics/Latinos make up 13% of the United States population, but make up 17% of new HIV infections and 18% of people living with HIV. New HIV infection rates in Hispanic/Latino men are twice as high as those in white men and for Hispanic/Latino women, new HIV rates are 4 times as high as those for white women.

Can AIDS be prevented? Most testing for AIDS occurs in the medical setting, so it is very important to talk to your health care provider about the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone between the ages of 13-64 be tested for AIDS at least once, regardless of how, whether or not they believe themselves to be at risk for the disease. Providers are encouraged to talk openly and honestly to all of their patients about HIV and AIDS (whether or not they have the disease), including how to reduce their risk behaviors and how to stay healthy. Practicing safe sex (such as always using condoms) and avoiding risky behaviors (such as sharing used hypodermic needles) that have been shown to be associated with the development of the disease has been shown to greatly reduce the chances of developing the disease.

People who already have HIV do not necessarily go on to develop AIDS and thus also need proper care and discussions regarding safe behaviors and prevention practices. HIV-positive persons who receive prevention services by a provider have been shown to have significant reduction over time in unprotected sex practices.

Providers can refer their patients who are HIV-positive or who have AIDS to community prevention programs as needed.

What can you do to protect yourself from developing AIDS? Know if you are at risk, how the disease is spread, and take actions to protect yourself. The most effective way to avoid developing AIDS is to practice abstinence, followed by mutual monogamy with an uninfected partner. Sexually active individuals should use condoms correctly and consistently to decrease their risk of developing the disease. Do not share needles if you inject drugs, and make sure to discuss all of your concerns about the disease with a health care provider.

It is also important to get tested as an essential first step in protecting yourself and others from getting infected. Talk to your health care provider about getting tested in his/her office. For additional testing sites, you may call 800-CDC-INFO or visit If you are HIV-positive, you can talk to your provider about taking steps to prevent your partner from becoming infected and to extend your life and prevent the development of AIDS.

Speaking out about HIV and AIDS with family and friends helps to reduce the stigma and homophobia that prevent many people from seeking help, including testing, prevention, treatment, and support. You can also get involved in your community to help people find the services they need.

Is there a vaccine against AIDS? There is no vaccine against AIDS, though there are many drugs that may be used to treat the infection. Your health care provider will be able to discuss with you the best treatment options for you. Knowing your risks, practicing safe sex, getting regular testing, and discussing your concerns with your health care provider are all important in helping to prevent an infection.

For more information on HIV and AIDS, contact the following organizations:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To speak to a representative, you may also call the CDC INFO Contact Center at (800) 232-4636 (CDC-INFO). Associates can assist you in English or Spanish. TTY callers may contact (888) 232-6348.

Dr. Hilliard is a Senior Content Development Specialist in Horsham, PA.