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Every year, December 1 marks World AIDS Day. In its 31st year, World AIDS Day is one of the most recognized international health days. The day provides a key opportunity to raise awareness, commemorate those who have passed on, and celebrate victories in AIDS prevention and treatment. Because an estimated 1 of 7 people who have HIV do not know they are infected, the World AIDS Day calls to action the importance of testing for the disease and education about HIV treatment and prevention.

HIV does not discriminate. It affects people of all ages, races, sexual orientations and social classes, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend that everyone between the ages of 13-64 be tested for HIV once in their lifetime and annually if they are at higher risk.

Knowing your HIV status and risk factors helps keep you and your partners healthy.

World AIDS Day also offers a chance to think about how far we’ve come in this battle. HIV has shifted from being a death sentence to a chronic, but manageable, disease. HIV medications have paved the way for individuals to lead longer, healthier lives. Those medications have gone from one-drug regimens in the late 1980s and early ’90s, to the introduction of triple drug therapies in the mid to late ’90s, to today’s one-pill-once-a-day regimens.

One thing that hasn’t changed significantly is the high cost of medication, which continues to average around $2,000 to $3,000 a month. Medicaid, and many private insurance policies, will cover the cost of the medication with a minimal co-pay. AIDS Drug Assistance Programs and patient assistance programs are available in the United States, making access to medication affordable.

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Although the death rates from HIV have declined enormously, new HIV infections still occur. In the United States, approximately 1.1 million people are living with HIV and 38,000 new infections occur each year.

One of the newer strategies for HIV prevention focuses on “Treatment as Prevention.” If HIV infected individuals correctly take medications to treat their HIV infection every day, (called antiretroviral therapy, or ART) they can reduce the amount of virus (viral load) in their blood and body fluids. The medications can keep them healthy and, if they have a very low or undetectable viral load, they can also greatly reduce the chance of transmitting HIV to others.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is another tool in the prevention strategy. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration approved Truvada, a prescription drug meant for people who do not have HIV, but who are at high risk of getting it. If the pill is taken correctly every day, and used in combination with condoms and other safer-sex measures, it can lessen a person’s risk of getting HIV from sex by 90 percent, and lower the chance of acquiring HIV by 70 percent for injecting drug users.

Other prevention strategies continue to include abstinence, limiting sexual partners, using condoms correctly when having sex, avoiding injection drug use, and never sharing needles or syringes. A combination of these strategies is ideally the most effective in reducing HIV transmission.

As we commemorate the 31st anniversary of World AIDS Day, let’s celebrate the advancements in HIV prevention and treatment and if you have never been tested, make a plan to do so.

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Molly Hale manages the HIV Services at RiverStone Health and can be reached at 247-3320 or molly.hal@riverstonehealth.org

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