December 1 is World AIDS Day, created to raise public awareness of the disease and the ongoing search for a cure. AIDS, short for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, is a complex disease that compromises the immune system and affects around 34 million people worldwide. AIDS is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, which can lay dormant in the body for decades. A person is considered to have AIDS when HIV starts to attack the body’s cells―often CD4 cells, which are an important part of the immune system. When “hijacked” CD4s multiply, they copy HIV instead, and the number of CD4 cells goes down. This results in a severely weakened immune system, making AIDS patients uniquely susceptible to deadly infections.
Although AIDS has no cure, thanks to new medications, patients can still live relatively normal lives, which is remarkable considering the condition was considered a death sentence in the 1970s. One type of medication, called NRTIs or “nukes,” interrupts the life cycle of HIV as it tries to copy itself. Protease inhibitors have a similar goal: by binding to protease, a protein that HIV needs to replicate, they reduce the number of viruses in the body. Another type of inhibitor, entry inhibitors block HIV from entering the CD4 cells. Scientists are also working to develop drugs that boost immunity, since AIDS patients’ immune systems can no longer fight infections.
Since the development of these medications, the lifespans of AIDS patients have increased by 200%. In the words of former president Bill Clinton, “AIDS is no longer a death sentence for those who can get the medicines.” However, he continues, “Now it’s up to the politicians to create the ‘comprehensive strategies’ to better treat the disease.” In addition to raising awareness, World AIDS Day serves to remind policymakers of their responsibility to help the AIDS community. Its slogan, “Stop AIDS: Keep the Promise” refers to a plan signed by the United Nations called the Millennium Development Goals, one of which was halting and reversing the spread of HIV around the world. On World AIDS Day, many people write letters to government officials to ask for more funding toward treatment and research toward the disease, and support is demonstrated by wearing a red ribbon. For more information, go to www.worldaidsday.org/about.