AIDS At 25: Pandemic Has Spread Faster Than Awareness

More than 1 million Americans living with AIDS, thousands more unaware of infection.

It could have been Magic Johnson announcing to the world that he was HIV-positive. Or watching Pedro Zamora cope with the debilitating disease on "The Real World." Maybe it hit a little closer to home and infected a friend, family member or lover.

Whether it's been through pop culture or a personal experience, HIV and AIDS have impacted billions. Meanwhile, 25 years after the first documented cases of what would later be defined as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a lot has changed. And yet, some things haven't changed at all.

A lack of information originally yielded assumptions that AIDS was confined to people who practiced drug use, sexual deviancy and homosexual activity. A taboo topic, the disease was discussed in hushed whispers and accompanied by raised eyebrows. But time revealed that these assumptions were falsehoods as AIDS alarmingly spread at an epidemic rate, infecting people regardless of race or lifestyle.

An estimated 150,000 new Human Immunodeficiency Virus infections struck the U.S. on an annual basis in the mid-1980s, according to the CDC. But to many people, those were just numbers. Then, Ryan White, an Illinois teenager diagnosed with the disease after contracting it from a product used to treat hemophilia, emerged as the public face of HIV. The passing of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and the public announcement that Magic Johnson was HIV-positive furthered the cause by attaching distinct faces to the deadly retrovirus.

"Magic Johnson announcing to the United States and the world that he was HIV-positive was one of the most noted moments in the history of the HIV epidemic in our country," said Jennifer Kates, vice president and director of HIV policy at the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. "Testing rates went up right after that. Everyone cites it as an important moment where it just hit them."

Kates says the public has celebrities and the media to thank for disseminating more information about HIV. "Celebrities play lots of different roles in educating about HIV, whether it's letting people know about their own status and how they're confronting HIV personally or through family members or friends," she said. "Or people like Bono playing a role where they say, 'People listen to me, and I can use that to help educate.' "

Thanks also to a slew of coordinated efforts and numerous AIDS-awareness programs, the general public has become much more educated about HIV and AIDS. Over the past decade, the rate of new infections has dropped dramatically, as has the number of transfers of the pandemic from mother to child, according to the CDC.

But where there is progress, there are inevitably setbacks. Despite countless education and awareness initiatives, misconceptions still run rampant. A 2006 survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost four out of 10 people ages 18 to 25 were unsure or believed that HIV could be transmitted via kissing, sharing a drinking glass or touching a toilet seat.

In addition to uncertainty about how the virus is contracted, young people are also still not completely at ease with being near HIV-infected people. The Kaiser survey reported that 48 percent of those polled would be very comfortable working with someone who has HIV; 33 percent said they would be somewhat comfortable. Furthermore, more than three-quarters of respondents felt that there was a lot or some discrimination against HIV in the U.S. today.

Despite lingering discomfort and ignorance surrounding the virus, there have been many advancements. And there is hope.

"The general scientific belief is that there will be a vaccine to prevent HIV transmission in years to come," Kates said. "But that's many years away and it's not going to be 100 percent effective. So even when we get [an AIDS] vaccine — or if we get a vaccine for HIV — it's not going to be a cure, per se. We're still going to need all kinds of prevention intervention so that people who don't have access to it, or for whom it doesn't work, aren't putting themselves at risk. Prevention will be really critical."

Studies show that most people know that abstinence is the most effective method of avoiding infection, with condom use and monogamy as the next best alternatives. But despite widespread campaigns, young people remain lax about testing.

In fact, the Kaiser study indicated that 51 percent of the young people surveyed had never been tested. Of the 51 percent, 54 percent had never done so because they did not feel that they were at risk.

"There were some studies that came out that CDC did recently about young men that have sex with men who were infected," Kates said. "Very high proportions of them did not think that they were at risk and did not know that they were infected."

More than 250,000 people infected with HIV are unaware that they have the virus, according to the CDC. In an effort to reduce that number, the CDC is considering refining guidelines so HIV testing is incorporated into standard testing in medical environments.

Twenty-five years have passed and great strides have been made in the fight against the sinister HIV/AIDS pandemic. But with more than 1 million Americans living with AIDS, there's still a long way to go.