World AIDS Day: Getting to Zero as a Tangible Reality

By Howaida M. Werfelli, MPH, CHES
Executive Director, SALVERE

This December 1st marks the 25th annual observance of World AIDS Day. In addition to reflection about the global pandemic and its current status, this year’s observance includes community-wide events, remembrances and free HIV testing opportunities. The Millennium Development Goals and the international community’s buy-in of the goals gave us hope that an AIDS-free generation was a possibility. Is getting to zero a tangible reality? The general consensus is yes.

A decade ago this consensus would have come hesitantly and with much reservation because early on in the pandemic, HIV was incapacitating many and AIDS was eliminating populations in droves. Nowadays, the numbers tell a different story. According to UNAIDS, there were 2.5 million new HIV infections in 2011, 25 countries have experienced a 50% or greater reduction in new HIV infections since 2001, and the Caribbean is reporting a 42% reduction in new HIV infections. The progress experienced in the Caribbean is particularly important because the Caribbean ranks after sub-Saharan Africa as the second most affected region. It should be noted that while the reductions are significant and are occurring in strategically significant locations, the rate of new HIV infections and AIDS related deaths are on the rise in two regions: Eastern Europe and Central Asia and the Middle East and North Africa.

The numbers also show that 1.6 billion adolescents and young adults between the ages of 12-24 are living with HIV. Those aged 15-24 made up 42% of new HIV infections. What gives? Individual studies conducted by the CDC and UNAIDS found a common trend…most adolescents and young adults are not concerned with contracting HIV. Alcohol consumption among adolescents and young adults is considerably high and the correlation between heavy drinking and lowered inhibitions is known. Heavy drinking often leads to unprotected sexual activity and/or drug use (injecting drug use included), the numbers one and two leading modes of HIV transmission, respectively. Drug use and HIV are now being coined “Intertwined Epidemics” because, as is the case with alcohol, drug use comes with lowered inhibitions that lead to other high-risk behaviors.

So, is getting to zero a tangible reality? We will need to keep pushing forward with the use of evidence-based approaches to addressing the things that lead to new HIV infections. We will need to change the dialogue and move forward from research to practice. If we remain on course we can realistically get to zero new HIV infections, zero mother-to-child transmissions, zero AIDS related deaths and zero discrimination and see an AIDS-free generation.

SALVERE (Striving to Achieve Literacy Via Education, Research and Engagement) is a new non-profit organization based in San Antonio and means “to be in good health” in Latin. Just as Latin serves as a mother tongue and root basis for many of our modern day languages, SALVERE desires to be the rooted force behind health related change on a local and global scale. The mission of the organization is to address health disparities by achieving health literacy through the efforts that include education, research, and community engagement. The organization targets a number of health related topics and encompasses a variety of initiatives and projects that include Viral Load Zero (HIV/AIDS), The Nutrition Literacy Campaign, and the MENA (Middle East North Africa) Project.

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