There is no cure for HIV infection and treatment is a lifelong and expensive undertaking, if it works at all. Prevention is key for protecting the population from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The question though is how to prevent the spread of this deadly disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 million people in the United States are living with HIV. HIV causes AIDS by attacking the body's immune cells and infection is completely preventable if the proper caution is taken. Since the early 1980s, millions of people worldwide have died from AIDS.
How HIV is Transmitted
To prevent infection, the easiest place to start is to prevent transmission.
HIV is transmitted via body fluids. When HIV was originally described, the populations most affected were male homosexuals and intravenous drug users. After education about clean needles and safe sex, including needle exchange and condom distribution programs, the infection rates decreased in these populations. Currently, males are still the majority of new infections in the United States (73%), and they include men who have sex with men (50% of all new infections), but heterosexual contact is the reason for one-third of all new infections in the United States. For females, 80% of all infections are due to heterosexual contact, accounting for approximately 7400 new infections in 2006.
Blood transfusions were also once a source of infection, but since the discovery of the virus, screening methods have been put in place to prevent this from occurring. This measure of caution and prevention has essentially eliminated hemophiliacs from the list of affected groups, at least in developed countries.
Other modes of transmission include breast feeding, which is a common route of infection in Africa, passing the disease from the mother to her child. Africa is the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic, with nearly half of all infections on that one continent. Half of all infections in Africa are women and children. The problems in Africa are slightly different from those of the United States. Tribal wars, government denial, cultural views on contraception and premarital sex, and a lack of health care and antiviral access have made education, prevention, screening, and treatment very difficult roads to follow.
So what is the answer? How do we protect the world's people from HIV and AIDS?
There is no one answer. In the developed world, education has been somewhat successful, but a new generation is coming up without the fear that provoked adults to pay attention to condom use in the 1980s and 1990s. Some experts believe that culture-specific education is the key to targeting at-risk populations. Education about prevention is still necessary. Becoming lax in communicating the risks will only give the disease another opportunity to gain a foothold as risky behaviors become popular. Also, information about screening and treatment can prevent unknown spread of the disease to new partners. There are currently a number of confidential and inexpensive testing methods. Once diagnosed, early treatment can hold AIDS at bay, and future partners may be spared infection.
In Africa, the answers are even more complex. Access to inexpensive antivirals is necessary to treating HIV once it's recognized. Confidential and inexpensive screening is necessary to recognize infection, and prevent further spread. Then there's the cultural attitude that must be shifted to a more understanding approach, recognizing that AIDS is a problem and that infected individuals are not evil. Premarital sex is not always consensual in the warring areas of Africa. Women become infected and pregnant at the same time, spreading the disease to their children. How does one educate or curb the spread of sexually related disease in this context?
Education, Treatment, and Preventing the Spread of HIV
Without the first step of screening, access to treatment means nothing because those who are infected won't know to seek help. Without eliminating the cultural bias towards infected individuals, in both Africa and developed nations, screening won't occur. Particularly in Africa, it is a very difficult situation that even experts have difficulty approaching. The African governments and tribal leaders need to step up and accept that they have a problem. Ending the wars and sexual atrocities may be their only hope to saving their people.
What it all comes down to is the fact that we cannot protect everyone against HIV. Adults will choose to take part in risky behaviors - unsafe sex, sharing needles. All we can do is provide as much information as possible and provide treatments to those we can reach. This can decrease further spread, protecting future partners.