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AIDS: from death sentence to chronic disease

We celebrate life during the holiday season, starting with Thanksgiving until the new year. World AIDS Day on Saturday gives us a chance to both celebrate and commit to doing more.

In 1981, when the first known case of HIV, the AIDS virus, occurred, it was an inevitable death sentence. Today, we are able to call HIV/AIDS a chronic disease. Patients can live with it as they do with diabetes and hypertension. We now have ways to reduce person-to-person transmission of HIV by 96 percent. And with appropriate treatment, we can reduce mother-to-child transmission to less than 1 percent. That's great news for people who know they are HIV-positive and have access to the drugs to stop transmission and the drugs to keep their disease in remission.

With a national and global commitment to ending AIDS, we could soon see a new generation who haven't even heard of AIDS. It's not hard to remember when AIDS in the United States was a death penalty — hopeless. In the 1980s, perhaps everyone knew someone who had died from AIDS.

In the new initiative to have everyone from ages 15-65 screened for HIV, the Centers for Disease Control tells us 20 percent of Americans with HIV don't even know they have it. That's a threat to themselves and all the rest of us. We also will not be free of HIV/AIDS here until the rest of the world is free of it. Americans have too much global contact to be invulnerable, especially in border states like Florida.

Unfortunately, according to the World Health Organization, most of the people in the world infected with HIV lack access to prevention and treatment resources, despite strong U.S. leadership in this arena. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, have proven that drugs, education and appropriate delivery can get the job done.

Consider this story from Luwiza Makukula of Zambia:

"I lost my spouse of 13 years in 2001. Immediately after his death, I started getting sick with persistent fevers. I suffered from tuberculosis and was diagnosed HIV-positive in 2002. At that time I had no knowledge about TB and HIV.

"In March 2002, I was hospitalized and put in an isolation ward. That was one of the most difficult moments in my life, mostly because of the stigmatization attached to TB, including stigma from health care workers. As if I had not had enough, I lost my memory, I could not walk, I had no feeling in my feet, and I could only operate from a wheelchair. I was put on TB treatment and after three months I started my HIV treatment.

"At the time I started my HIV treatment I bought antiretroviral drugs with financial support from my family. Unfortunately, some of my friends and family who were eligible for treatment could not afford to purchase them in Zambia. Fortunately, I only bought ARVs for four months before the Zambian government, through the Global Fund, introduced free drugs. The Global Fund has lightened the suffering and burden as its funds have increased care and support services in our communities."

Luwiza's condition now is under control, and she works for the Community Initiative for TB, HIV/AIDS and Malaria to help others get treatment and relief.

These great accomplishments did not happen overnight. It has taken more than 30 years of hard work, research and fighting to get to where we are today. With these proven results, we have cause for hope and celebration as long as the United States is willing to lead the world in making AIDS something to read about in history books.

Even though America faces difficult times as we lift ourselves out of our financial, fiscal and political problems, this isn't a time to lose our larger focus. For the benefit of all Americans, both HIV-infected and not, we must stay the course at home. And for the benefit of the entire world's people, infected and not, we must stay the course internationally.

Let's look forward to the time when World AIDS Day is a time of celebration and can finally be put to rest.

Both authors volunteer with Results, a nonpartisan citizens lobby. Robyn Schickler is a fourth-year student at the USF Medical School. Ken Schatz, who lives in Tampa, focuses on education for all, microfinance and ending preventable disease. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

AIDS: from death sentence to chronic disease 11/29/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 29, 2012 3:49pm]
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