By Briana Vannozzi
In a show of support and solidarity they walked and gathered in all corners of the state to honor this 28th annual World AIDS Day. In Tenafly, a couple hundred high school students sat in for a sobering conference focused on prevention, where doctors from Hackensack University Medical Center have set lofty goals — to bring up their first AIDS-free generation.
“I think education and knowing how the virus is transmitted is most important. So today we hoped to have taught about HIV, how it’s transmitted, how one can prevent themselves from becoming infected,” said Dr. Steven Sperber, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at HackensackUMC.
If left untreated, the human immunodeficiency virus can lead to the disease AIDS. Since its discovery during the mid 1980s, HIV and AIDS have killed approximately 35 million people globally. And unlike so many illnesses that have advanced with modern medicine, once you’ve been infected, it’s for life.
“The virus is viruses. So there’s not one type of virus any more. It’s not naïve, this virus is very savvy and has become resistant to a lot of treatments,” said Dr. Gary Munk, director of Clinical Virology at HackensackUMC.
But if detected early, personalized treatments can help those infected have a longer and better quality of life. It’s spread most commonly through sexual transmission or sharing needles and syringes.
“We have seen just since 2005 a 37 percent decline in those with HIV/AIDS. But we still have 35,000 residents living with HIV/AIDS in our state,” said New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett.
Out of the 37,336 residents living with HIV and AIDS, the Health Department estimated one in eight is unaware of their infection.
Nationally 1.2 million people are living with the disease. That’s a 19 percent decline between 2005 to 2014.
“So many people are affected by it. It happens every 9.5 minutes around the world. So of course I’m going to tell everyone I know when I go back to school that you should get tested no matter what,” said Grace Ezgilioglu, a 10th-grader at Bergen County Technical Schools.
“I thought if you got HIV you’d be in a coma or you’d look weird, but people look actually normal and not so differently. You don’t know the difference between someone who does and doesn’t have HIV,” said 10th-grader Devon O’Connor.
People who have had unprotected sex or have shared needles should seek an HIV rapid test. You can find it at a number of sites throughout the state or through a mobile unit. The best part? You get your results within 20 minutes.
“Here in New Jersey we did 85,000 rapid HIV tests last year. For those 85,000 people it took 20 minutes from the point the test was taken to when they got their results and know what their status was. You have to know your status so that you can take the appropriate next steps,” Bennett said.
Despite progress, the disease remains condensed in many urban areas, with blacks and Hispanics making up 75 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS in New Jersey.
“Teaching them to take control of their life and their health, I think that’s our biggest take home for them because that can prevent not only HIV but any infections,” said Dr. Julia Piwoz, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital.
Their end goal — more education, more tests, less infections.