Despite progress across the globe, the AIDS disease still claims more than 2,500 lives daily. While awareness and education programs abound, in some ways, doctors say our success combating the disease has also become our weakness.
“Over time we’ve gotten a little complacent. We don’t hear about HIV or AIDS as much,” said Dr. Julia Piwoz, section chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Hackensack University Medical Center.
At a conference in Tenafly, hundreds of high school students listen to a panel of medical professionals ahead of World AIDS Day. HIV, or the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, can lead to AIDS if left untreated.
In New Jersey a little over 37,000 residents are living with HIV or AIDS. That’s actually a slight uptick over the last few years. Despite the overall number of new HIV diagnosis declining — from just over 1,700 in 2006 to 1,048 in 2017.
“We’ve made remarkable strides in preventing maternal child transmission of HIV, to the point where there may be one or two each year in our state; however, one population that hasn’t changed that much is the age 13 to 24 year olds,” said Piwoz.
“You hear numbers like, 51 percent of minors don’t even know they have disease like this. And I think that’s super important to get information because a lot of teenagers do things that might put them at risk,” said Omer Raz, a junior at Tenafly High School.
“It’s very prone to replicative changes overnight, so the virus you go to bed with is different virus or viruses that you wake up with. Every time we try to put out the fire, it becomes fire-resistant,” said Dr. Gary Munk, who specializes in clinical virology at Hackensack University Medical Center.
That’s why these doctors want to reach younger audiences and get the prevention-ball rolling, so to speak.
“We’re not saying, ‘oh, don’t have sex.’ We’re saying, ‘this is what happens, these are the consequences,’ and we’re just trying to inform them of what can happen,” said Kelsey Koehler, junior at Tenafly High School.
A mobile unit at the conference administered HIV rapid tests. You get your results in 20 minutes and know your status. The state is also partnering on a prevention campaign called “U=U” spreading awareness about effective HIV medications, like PrEP, which prevent the spread of the disease through sexual transmission.
“PrEP it stands for ‘pre-exposure prophylaxis’ and that’s different from post-exposure prophylaxis after being exposed to HIV,” said Piwoz. “It’s one pill with two different medicines in it. If you’re not infected, but are having high-risk behaviors, and if you take this medicine every day, it is remarkably effective in preventing you from getting infected.”
It’s not a cure, or an encouragement to engage in risky behavior. But it’s a huge step forward. Still, physicians are reluctant to prescribe it. And the ones at this event say, our complacency may become just as dangerous as the disease itself.