WASHINGTON - When AIDS was first identified more than 40 years ago, it was a death sentence. Since then, it has become a chronic, but treatable, disease. World Aids Day on December 1 is a yearly observance to help make people realize AIDS is still with us and, despite advances, the epidemic isn't over.
Every year communities around the world observe World AIDS Day with messages about awareness, getting tested and prevention....experts say the simplest method is to always use a condom during sex.
When health ministers first designated December first as World AIDS Day, they realized that, unlike other diseases, the HIV virus that causes AIDS could spread globally. Paul Kawata has been an AIDS activist since the very beginning.
"I was there in the early days, I was there when we both had to fight back, and act out, and also bury so many people that we loved," he said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has also been in that fight since the beginning. He's worked to develop treatments for HIV. Treatment has become so effective that if an infected person takes one pill a day, it's impossible to pass the virus to anyone else. There's also Truvada, a drug that prevents uninfected people from getting the disease. Fauci says ending AIDS could be simple.
"If you did those two things: treatment as prevention, for those who are infected, pre-exposure prophylaxis for those who are at risk, if you implemented that to its fullest, theoretically, you could end the epidemic just like that," said Fauci.
The number of new HIV infections has fallen dramatically with these drugs. AIDS-related deaths are down by more than 55% since 2004, but only about 60 percent of those with HIV disease take medication.
"We have to understand that HIV sits at the intersection of so much discrimination and stigma," said Kawata.
Kawata works works for NMAC, an organization that advocates for health equity and racial justice to combat AIDS. He says The virus spreads wherever people face discrimination.
"First of all, it impacts predominately people of color," said Kawata. "Number two, it impacts predominantly gay men. Number three, it impacts predominately poor people."
The majority of people with HIV in the U.S. are poor. Outside the U.S., The majority of people with HIV live in low- and middle-income countries. Teenagers everywhere are at risk. They have little access to to testing, healthcare and counseling. And that's why Fauci says we need something else besides medication.
"We're not going to eliminate HIV without a vaccine," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Institutes of Health.
Fauci says the work on vaccines is promising, but right now, what's best is getting people tested so those who are positive can go on therapy, providing Truvada to people at risk of being infected, and treating HIV as a disease, not as a political, moral or social issue.