World AIDS Day: How the World Is Still Fighting the Disease 35 Years After Its Discovery

PHOTO: A participant lays flowers as he takes part in a ceremony to mark World AIDS Day near a monument in memory of AIDS victims in Kiev, Ukraine Dec. 1, 2016. PlayGleb Garanich/Reuters
WATCH AIDS: By the Numbers

It has been 35 years since researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first reported on a mysterious illness that was infecting and killing otherwise healthy young men.

The CDC report from 1981 was the first time that what we now know as AIDS was mentioned in medical literature.

In those early days, little was known about the disease. Today researchers understand a great deal about how HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, attacks the immune system and leads to AIDS. While treatment, prevention and education have saved many lives, researchers continue to fight the spread of HIV and AIDS and find a cure.

PHOTO: Two Thousand candles were lit in memory of victims of AIDS on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, 2016 at Gammeltorv Square in Copenhagen, Denmark.Jens Dresling/Polfoto via AP Photo
Two Thousand candles were lit in memory of victims of AIDS on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, 2016 at Gammeltorv Square in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Since that CDC report was published, AIDS has claimed 35 million lives globally, according to the the World Health Organization.

Anti-retroviral medications have turned HIV infection from a death sentence into a chronic manageable illness for many. However, fewer than half the people worldwide with HIV get treatment needed to prolong their lives.

Approximately 1.1 million people died worldwide from the disease last year, according to the United Nations.

A huge problem in the fight against HIV is that people can go years without exhibiting symptoms. As a result, 12.5 percent of people in the U.S. with HIV are unaware they are infected, the CDC estimates.

Globally, that figure jumps to 40 percent, according to the WHO.

To combat that problem, the WHO announced this week new guidelines to encourage self-testing for HIV.

People can now test for the virus via a simple oral swab or by pricking a finger in the privacy of their homes.

“Millions of people with HIV are still missing out on lifesaving treatment, which can also prevent HIV transmission to others,” Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director-general, said in a statement. “HIV self-testing should open the door for many more people to know their HIV status and find out how to get treatment and access prevention services.”

In the U.S., gay and bisexual men of color are at a higher risk of contracting HIV than the overall population. The lifetime infection risk for black men who are gay or bisexual is 1 in 2, according to the CDC.

Worldwide, more women than men are infected with the disease. HIV is the No. 1 killer of women ages 15 to 49, according to the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

Adolescents are also particularly vulnerable. According to one report, 41,000 people ages 10 to 19 died of the disease in 2015.

“The world has made tremendous progress in the global effort to end AIDS, but the fight is far from over, especially for children and adolescents,” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a statement today. “Every two minutes, another adolescent — most likely a girl — will be infected with HIV. If we want to end AIDS, we need to recapture the urgency this issue deserves — and redouble our efforts to reach every child and every adolescent.”

While there are still no cures for AIDS or vaccines proven to prevent HIV infection, there are multiple experimental vaccines in the early stages of testing around the globe. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a daily preventive medication regimen, is a way for uninfected people to greatly reduce their risk, and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is a treatment that can significantly cut the chance of HIV infection in people within 72 hours of exposure.

Additionally, scientists are examining if gene therapy could someday lead to a functional cure for HIV infection.