For the first time in more than two decades, HIV/AIDS researchers and activists are convening in the US for this week’s International AIDS Conference. American attitudes toward HIV/AIDS have changed significantly since this conference was last held on our soil. Fortunately, education and awareness efforts have helped tame fear and misconceptions about the disease. However, the growing number of people with HIV/AIDS who go on to live long and healthy lives has given way to complacency as many people start to assume the worst is over.
Make no mistake, HIV/AIDS still takes a great toll on Americans. More than 1.2 million people in the US are living with HIV, with approximately 50,000 new HIV infections occurring each year. Women account for more than 25% of new infections, mostly as a result of heterosexual contact. Women of color are particularly hard hit.
Screening is key to prevent the spread of HIV. ACOG recommends that all women age 19–64 be regularly screened for HIV. HIV screening is especially important for pregnant women and those planning pregnancy. Increased prenatal testing, treatment of HIV+ pregnant women and their newborns with antiretroviral medications, and avoidance of breastfeeding have helped drastically reduce transmission of the virus to newborns to less than 1%. Additionally, researchers continue to make advances with medical therapies to suppress and prevent HIV.
Though the pandemic continues, the feeling in the lead-up to the International AIDS Conference is one of hope that a cure is within reach. I share the optimism and hope that the conference will remind Americans that prevention, screening, and early treatment are vital to beating HIV/AIDS and that, most importantly, the battle is not yet won.