Every December 1, we come together to mark World AIDS Day and reup our collective commitment to ending HIV and the stigma those living with it still experience today.
This year’s is a historic one, as it marks the 35th commemoration of this important day. It started in 1988 at the height of the AIDS epidemic and has continued since as a global inflection point for continued conversations — and action! — to eradicate HIV once and for all.
To center our focus, each year has a theme to guide us, and 2023’s is Remember and Commit. Given that guidance, Sexual + Being wanted to take a moment to look back at all we’ve accomplished in these 35 years … and then chart the course for the work ahead.
Remembering our history
In 1981, the world forever changed. That was the first year anyone had contracted what would later become known as AIDS and, as we would quickly come to know, it didn’t take long to upend our entire world.
The years that followed brought immense hardship, killing millions globally and leaving those who survived their diagnosis to live a life often without government support, access to consistent and affordable treatment, or harsh discrimination based on their status.
HIV was no equal opportunist. It impacted then (and today) mostly members of the LGBTQ+ community, Brown and Black folks, lower socioeconomic groups, drug users, and others who swiftly experienced painful stigma — if they were living with the virus, or stereotyped to be.
Eventually, the scientific and political spheres started to pay attention.
In March 1987, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a first-of-its-kind treatment for HIV called azidothymidine (AZT). The drug was prescribed to those living with HIV to prevent its progression to AIDS and it revolutionized how the virus was treated.
While AZT offered a path forward, it was far from a cure-all. Political activists and advocates started demanding more action with demonstrations like the unveiling of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall and protests by ACT UP NY and others.
This energy continued into the 90s and, with it, more of HIV’s painful toll.
- We lost several prominent figures like Keith Haring, Arthur Ashe, Freddie Mercury, and others to AIDS-related illnesses. At this time, a vast majority of the cases and deaths were gay, bisexual, and queer men.
- Ryan White, an Indiana teen who contracted the virus via blood transfusion, also lost his life during this time — a year before basketball star Magic Johnson announced his diagnosis. Together, these instances caused a groundswell of attention on how the virus spreads and shed light on who can contract it: anyone.
- In 1992, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that AIDS was the number 1 cause of death for U.S. men aged 25 to 44.
- Following in AZT’s footsteps, researchers were able to concoct additional drug cocktails — more specifically, nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) — that gained FDA approval. These medical strides forward showed that treating HIV was possible.
As progress slowly crept forward into the 2000s, the virus’ impact also continued globally. HIV became the leading cause of death worldwide in 2002 among those aged 15 to 59, putting the virus on a global center stage. And, by 2007, the CDC reported that more than 562,000 people died of AIDS in the U.S. alone since 1981.
Amidst the loss and hardship, tides soon began to shift significantly in the 2010s. In July 2012 alone, the U.S. reached two milestones that would transform our world’s experience with HIV.
- The FDA approved the first at-home HIV test that lets users learn their HIV status right away. These tests helped individuals know their status more easily and in private.
- A week after, the FDA approved a new drug, Truvada, that successfully prevents contraction if taken consistently. Truvada’s approval as PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, ushered in a new era for those communities at most risk.
These advancements as well as those made to prevent the virus from taking hold in the body after exposure — post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP — and in the development of antiretroviral drugs that help suppress the virus’s impact on the body — meaning an individual can use treatment for a consistently “undetectable” level of the virus and prevent transmission HIV to their sexual partner(s) — have led us to today.
Committing to our present work … and an HIV-free future
As we remember our history, we must also look to our present and future. So much has happened in the 35 years since the first World AIDS Day, yet there is still so much to do in supporting the HIV+ population.
Around the world, at least 9.2 million people are living with HIV today who do not have access to lifesaving treatment, according to a recent address from Executive Director of UNAIDS Winnie Byanyima. She goes on to add that we continue to lose a life to AIDS every minute.
While HIV lives on, CDC data from earlier this year suggests we are heading in the right direction. New HIV infections were 12 percent lower in 2021 when compared to 2017— dropping from about 36,500 infections to about 32,100. Yet, there is more work to do.
We must now commit ourselves to taking on what is our control, namely our sexual health:
- Explore prevention methods like PrEP and PeP
- Get tested regularly for HIV (and other STIs!)
- Practice safer sex as often as possible with your partners
- Find a medical professional you trust
- Review additional resources and support offered by DC Health.
After we look inwardly, we must also look toward our community and take greater action:
- Attend HIV prevention and testing events near you
- Advocate on the state, local, and federal levels for continued government action.
- Volunteer at local health or LGBTQ-focused non-profits in the DMV area.
- Call out negative rhetoric about HIV and those living with it every time you encounter it.
- Share this article on social media to ensure everyone can take action.
This World AIDS Day, remember the past that got us here and commit yourself to the fight for a better world in your community. Together, we can make a difference.
For more information on HIV and World AIDS Day, head to sexualbeing.org.