Decades later, epidemic easing

Decades later, epidemic easing

 Dec. 1, 2011 12:00 AM

The Arizona Republic

 Two decades ago, AIDS was a death sentence. Now, on World AIDS Day, the theme of the annual observance is the most hopeful ever: “Getting to Zero.”  Zero deaths. Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination.  Those goals are ambitious but achievable — if we ramp up diagnosis and treatment.

 A discouraging number of infections go undiagnosed: 20 percent of the estimated 1.2 million Americans infected with HIV, which causes AIDS, don’t know it.

 What they also don’t know is the terrible damage from having HIV circulating through their body, undermining the immune system, attacking the brain and putting their sexual partners at risk.

 We need a fresh push using every possible tool to encourage testing: publicity, outreach, targeted campaigns and creative incentives. In Washington, D.C., struggling with a high rate of HIV infections, one office of the Department of Motor Vehicles offers its waiting clients a $5 gift card if they get tested.

 Today’s medications are so effective that HIV-positive people can expect to live long lives. HIV/AIDS has become a chronic disease — with all the challenges of getting patients to follow treatment.

 And it’s a huge challenge. Just 28 percent of Americans with HIV have the virus under control.

 The organizations that are focused on AIDS services must adapt. One way is by following the “medical home” model and integrating other aspects of medical care, such as behavioral health. It’s a one-stop-shopping strategy that the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS is pursuing in Phoenix.

 The reality of government funding and medical economics also means that people must learn to take responsibility for their own long-term wellness, according to Carol Poore, president and CEO of the Southwest Center.

 Here’s an area where Arizona compares well with the rest of the country.  Although more than 14,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS in our state, the number of people diagnosed has dropped. There were 632 new diagnoses in 2010.

 We were below the national average in 2009 in the rate of diagnosed AIDS: nine per 100,000 population, compared with 11.2 for the U.S.  Today has a sad echo: It’s just over three decades since the first reported cases, in June 1981, of what was later identified as AIDS.

 But now, the United Nations declares that an unparalleled global response “has already forced the AIDS epidemic into decline.”  The disease is still a killer. Even in the U.S., more than 16,000 people with AIDS died in 2008.  With testing and treatment, we can shrink that number.

 We won’t hit zero soon. But it’s in sight.

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