December is AIDS Awareness Month and is a good opportunity to spread awareness about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Dr. Janette Wheat, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff associate professor and Cooperative Extension Program human development specialist, said. It is a time people worldwide can unite in the fight against HIV and show their support for people living with the condition.


“More than 700,000 American lives have been lost to HIV since 1981,” she said. “About 38,000 new HIV infections still occur each year. In total, around 1.1 million Americans are currently living with HIV.”


Dr. Wheat said great advances have been made in terms of treatment and prevention strategies and care for people living with HIV. During AIDS Awareness Month, individuals can learn about the progress related to combating HIV, as well as the challenges that remain.


“Currently, people with HIV who take medication as prescribed and stay virally suppressed can live long, healthy lives and have virtually no risk of sexually transmitting HIV to a partner,” she said.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people without HIV, but at high risk for it, can take a medicine called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to prevent them from getting HIV from sex when taken as prescribed. The drug reduces the risk of acquiring HIV by up to 97 percent.


“New laboratory techniques allow health officials to pinpoint where HIV infections are spreading most rapidly so they can quickly respond to stop the spread of new infections,” Dr. Wheat said. “Data indicate that most new infections occur in a limited number of counties.”


Despite the game-changing developments in HIV prevention and treatment tools, not everyone is benefiting equally from these advances. According to the CDC, new infections are highly concentrated among men who have sex with men; minorities, especially African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and American Indians and Alaska Natives; and those who live in the southern U.S.


“The shame surrounding HIV often prevents people living with or at risk for HIV from seeking the health care and services they deserve,” she said.


New research from the CDC indicates the vast majority (about 80 percent) of new HIV infections in the U.S. in 2016 were transmitted from the nearly 40 percent of people with HIV who either did not know they had HIV or who had been diagnosed but were not receiving HIV care.


“While intervention strategies have driven the number of new HIV infections down to a record low, the progress has plateaued,” Dr. Wheat said. “And there are new threats to the progress we’ve made, the most significant being the opioid crisis since one in 10 new HIV infections occurs among people who inject drugs.”


To combat the threat of HIV resurgence and lower the number of new infections, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced a project titled “Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America.” The plan seeks to reduce new HIV infections in the United States by 75 percent in five years and by 90 percent by 2030.


The program focuses on:


Diagnosing all people with HIV as early as possible. Since early detection can lead to quicker results in treatment and prevent transmission to others, the plan calls for making HIV testing simple, accessible and routine.


Treating people with HIV rapidly and effectively to reach sustained viral suppression. Because 80 percent of annual new infections are transmitted by those living with HIV who are not receiving care and treatment, there are plans to establish and expand programs to follow up with people with HIV no longer receiving care. Resources will be provided to re-engage these people in effective HIV care and treatment.


Preventing new HIV transmissions by using proven interventions, including PrEP and syringe services programs. Of the estimated 1 million Americans at substantial risk for HIV and who could benefit from PrEP, less than one in four individuals are actually using this medication.


In May 2019, the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences announced it would donate PrEP medication for up to 200,000 individuals each year for up to 11 years. HHS will make the medication available to individuals who are at risk for HIV and who are uninsured and might otherwise not be able to access or afford it.


Responding quickly to potential HIV outbreaks to get needed prevention and treatment services to people who need them. The HHS plans to ensure impacted communities have the technology, personnel and prevention resources to follow up on all HIV cases and to intervene to stop chains of transmission.


Individuals can find more information on Ending the HIV Epidemic at www.HIV.gov. The website also includes helpful resources for individuals living with HIV and for those supporting friends or loved ones with HIV.


The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all of its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.


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