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Update on HIV/AIDS Epidemic From Worldwide Perspective

Mills College Weekly

While most of us are aware of HIV and AIDS, how it is transmitted, and how it affects the immune system, I suspect that most of us are out of touch with the statistical landscape of HIV/AIDS in today’s world. Often in the news we hear alarming accounts of how the virus is devastating sub-Saharan Africa, or sometimes, bits about small but definite progress in treatment pharmacology. But how many people here and abroad actually have HIV and AIDS. What are current life expectancies? How well do the “drug cocktails” work? When HIV and AIDS first surfaced here, and for the following four or five years, I knew the answers to these sorts of questions. But the passing of time had left me out of touch with what’s really going on here and now.

In the U.S., the prognosis for people diagnosed with HIV is worlds away from what it was in the 1980s and early 1990s. Initially, it was believed that most people diagnosed with AIDS would die within a few months. This perspective changed when the health community realized that HIV caused AIDS and many of the people initially diagnosed had actually been ill for years. This insight, combined with a growing expertise at treating the pneumonias, other infections, and cancers associated with HIV, brought life expectancy estimates up to between eight and 15 years. Then, in the mid-1990s, anti-HIV treatments were introduced. These treatments are known as HAART, Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy, a combination of drugs which slow down the rate at which HIV reproduces.

It is now believed that if someone with HIV receives HAART before their immune system has been significantly compromised, and complies with all treatment, they can expect to live an almost normal life span (AIDSmap). Many people delay or avoid HIV testing all together due to fear. While this is understandable, the difference early diagnosis and treatment will make should be enough to motivate us all to get tested.

The advances in treatment are reflected in the changing statistical face of HIV/AIDS in wealthy western countries. For example, in 1994 there were more than 1,500 AIDS deaths in the U.K.. Presently there are only about 400 deaths annually.

While these advancements are heartening and inspiring, there are other faces of the epidemic that are more somber. Two of notable import are the domestic demographic shifts in infection rates and the increasingly critical international situation. In the U.S., non-Hispanic whites still comprise the largest group of infected people. However, black and Hispanic communities have been disproportionately affected, especially in recent years (Avert).

In this country, an estimated and steadily increasing 170,679 women have been infected with HIV. More than half of all infections have been attributed to heterosexual contact. In 2003, heterosexual contact with an infected partner led to an estimated 79 percent of new HIV diagnoses and 71 percent of new AIDS cases (Avert). By the end of 2003, 53,219 black females were living with AIDS. That’s more than three times the number of infected caucasian women.

In 2004, an estimated 39.4 million people worldwide were living with HIV and AIDS (Avert). By December of last year, women comprised 47 percent of that global population. In sub-Saharan Africa, women accounted for 57 percent of estimated cases. And, as of 2003, people aged 15-24 accounted for half of all new infections. That’s more then 6,000 young people every day (Avent).

In sub-Saharan Africa 25.4 million people are living with HIV and AIDS. That’s 64 percent of all cases. South and south- east Asia have the second largest infected population of 7.1 million. However their infection rate is 0.6 percent, the same as North America. This stands in stark contrast to Africa’s infection rate of 7.4 percent. Many poor and middle-class countries don’t have the resources to access HAART and other advanced medical treatments. So, for many of those living with HIV, the prognosis is very different from what we’ve come to expect here in the United States.

If you would like to get involved, the AIDS Volunteer Clearing House here in Oakland trains and places volunteers. For more information, call 510-419-3970. There is also free AIDS testing at Planned Parenthood, call 800-967-PLAN.