25 million dead in 25 years

Adam Griffiths

Prevention is solution in fight to stop HIV/AIDS

The year 1981 is remembered for a myriad of reasons.

MTV played its first music video.

Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president.

Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Yet, despite the impact of these events, one rises above all else: The first cases of what would come to be known as AIDS were reported.

More than 25 million people worldwide have died from AIDS since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the first report on it on June 5, 1981, according to AVERT, an international HIV/AIDS charity based in the UK.

No one knows when HIV, the precursory virus to AIDS, started.

According to Annabel Kanabus, director of AVERT, an international HIV and AIDS charity based in the UK, the early stigma attached to the disease made it difficult to raise public awareness.

“For a long time, people were unsure what this new disease actually was,” Kanabus said. “The fact that it affected gay men at the start also had a large part to play, because there was a real reluctance to talk about homosexuality openly, or to be seen to ‘encourage’ it in any way.”

It would take some time before the general public would begin to learn the risks and take precautions.

Although AIDS had claimed more than 3,000 lives by the end of 1984, mobilization toward awareness and prevention against the disease was lukewarm. Kanabus said the aversion to discussing the disease carried well into the late 1980s and contributed to the lackluster fight against AIDS.

“The fact that HIV is such a long-running virus means that it has taken a long time to really get any true sense of scale of the problem,” she said. “Sadly, it takes epidemic proportions and staggering death figures to awaken people to the truth and to mobilize support for most diseases. AIDS is no exception.”

But even with a heightened sense of what the disease actually is and who it affects, more than half of the American public still has not been tested for HIV, according to a 2004 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Almost three-quarters of that half did not get tested because they believed they were not at risk.

To Kanabus, these results are disheartening. While researches race to find a cure, awareness and prevention today are an equal priority on the road to an AIDS-free world.

“Prevention is better than a cure and is the best way to stop HIV in its tracks,” Kanabus said.

And locally, this ideology is enforced.

The Kent State Office of Health Promotion offers anonymous HIV testing to students throughout the school year.

Graduate assistant Sarah Hallsky said more than 200 students were tested on the last testing date. This is the positive attitude that students need to be taking in doing their part to combat the disease, she said.

“It shows our students are being responsible when it comes to routine testing and being safe,” Hallsky added.

This kind of responsibility is crucial in a college environment where, according to the 2004 American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, two in 1,000 students have HIV; and in a world where according to UNAIDS 40.3 million people are estimated to be living with HIV and where according to the CDC half of those infected don’t know it or seek treatment.

Unlike MTV’s 25th birthday bash and Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement, this 25th anniversary of AIDS hasn’t been granted the same amount of media coverage.

But it’s still been 25 years, and 25 million people have died.

“The overriding realization that occurs again and again is that AIDS is ‘someone else’s problem,'” she said. “This is the most dangerous assumption you can make, and the biggest barrier to effective prevention.”

Contact features reporter Adam Griffiths at [email protected].