In 1981, the first official report was printed of what would ultimately be called Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). In the years to follow, hundreds of thousands of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends and others throughout the United States would be diagnosed with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (also known as HIV), the causative agent of AIDS.
Included in these numbers were military service members, who, due to high risk behaviors and deployments to areas with higher rates of disease, have been shown to have a greater risk of HIV infection compared to the general population.
During the early years, this diagnosis was essentially a death sentence, with limited treatment options and even those available having little and often short-lived effectiveness.
As time passed, treatment options improved and deaths related to HIV decreased. Whereas people diagnosed in the late 1990s and early 2000s often needed 10 to 15 pills per day to keep the infection at bay, patients diagnosed today have no less than six different options that only require one pill once a day.
Recent studies also show that with early treatment, a 20 year old diagnosed with HIV today can expect to live on average to their 70s; a considerable improvement given prior life expectancy was 10 to 12 years with an HIV diagnosis. With these improvements, there may be a temptation to become complacent with what is now for some a “chronic disease.”
However, with an estimated 1.1 million U.S. citizens alone living with HIV (one -in-seven of whom are unaware of their diagnosis), it is important to continue educating the public about this disease and the importance of prevention over treatment.
For the military, several hundred active-duty Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors and Marines have been diagnosed with HIV during their service.
Often these diagnoses occur in young males, a prime population in the military, and frequently during deployments or other overseas activities where they may be at increased risk for exposure. Although work on a vaccine is in progress, there is still no cure for HIV and any new diagnosis will carry with it the physical burden of HIV associated diseases, as well as the emotional toll that comes from what is still a life-changing disease.
This can be even more devastating for active-duty military as they can continue to serve but are non-deployable and may be limited in career progression opportunities due to the diagnosis.
As World AIDS Day approaches, it is important to recognize the advances in HIV/AIDS but also realize that there is still a way to go.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate new infections have declined by 10 percent from 2010 to 2014, but sadly this still represents over 37,000 individuals whose lives will be dramatically changed.
Prevention through education, reduction of stigma and ultimately elimination of this disease should continue to be the emphasis for civilian and military alike.
We must each be the one to take a stand for our own health and awareness and share this with one another, hands reaching out around the world.