HIV/AIDS Awareness: How Aware Are You?

You know a lot about cancer, diabetes and heart disease, but you might not be as familiar with other health issues like HIV/AIDS. Take advantage of May to increase your awareness of HIV/AIDS, and learn how Weill Cornell Medicine is prioritizing and transforming HIV care.

“It’s important as we emerge from the COVID pandemic that we don’t forget about the HIV pandemic that may have been left on the back burner,” says Gregory McWilliams, M.D., internal medicine physician specializing in LGBTQ health at Weill Cornell Medicine. “We’ve come such a long way from first identifying HIV and AIDS, to making it a chronic, manageable disease that can be treated over time.”

Advancing HIV/AIDS Care

Approximately 1.2 million Americans currently live with HIV. The disease affects gay and bisexual men far more than any other demographic. Black and Latino men and women are more likely to be affected by HIV than white men and women. People who use injectable drugs and transgender individuals are also at risk for being affected by HIV.

With appropriate treatment, the disease can be stopped from turning into AIDS. However, more than 1 in 10 people with HIV don’t know they have it.

Left undiagnosed and untreated, HIV continues attacking your immune system. In time, this increases your risk of AIDS. It also raises the likelihood that you’ll transmit the disease to others.

Appropriate medication reduces the amount of HIV virus in your body, which can reduce symptoms. Medication, such as a daily pill called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, also lowers the risk of transmitting the disease to others.

“The best way to reduce HIV transmission is to effectively treat people who have it by bringing their viral load down to undetectable levels,” says Benjamin Scallon, M.D., internal medicine physician at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Undetectable means untransmissible. And PrEP is a very useful tool for reducing risk.”

While medication reduces these risks, it doesn’t eliminate them altogether. An innovative treatment provided by Weill Cornell Medicine may change that.

In February 2022, Weill Cornell Medicine reported a potential cure for HIV while at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections.

Researchers made the discovery while treating a leukemia patient who had HIV. As can happen, the patient’s prescribed chemotherapy regimen damaged her blood supply. To overcome this problem, the patient received a stem-cell transplant. These cells came from a healthy adult relative and an unrelated newborn.

The newborn’s blood came from the baby’s umbilical cord. In addition to helping reestablish the patient’s blood supply, this blood contained a special gene variant. Known as CCR5Δ32, the variant is HIV-resistant.

In time, all the patient’s blood came from this HIV-resistant strain. Once this happened, the patient was able to stop taking HIV medication. More than a year later, the patient showed no signs of HIV. Additionally, the patient’s leukemia has remained in remission for more than four years.

This is the third reported case of a potential HIV cure.

Could stem cells lead the way to a world without HIV/AIDS? Possibly. If so, Weill Cornell Medicine looks forward to participating in this world-changing cure.

“We’re light years ahead of where we were when the AIDS epidemic started in the 1980s, when we were really dealing with something that was scary, completely new and novel, and essentially amounted to a death sentence for people who were infected with HIV,” Dr. Scallon says. “We’re in a really exciting place when it comes to HIV treatment and HIV prevention.”

May 18: HIV Vaccine Awareness Day

Unfortunately, there isn’t an HIV/AIDS vaccine. Why have an awareness day in honor of a non-existent HIV vaccine? To honor those working toward this potentially lifesaving treatment.

There’s a lot of ongoing work that many people may not realize is going on. Researchers work tirelessly to discover an effective vaccine for HIV. They labor in laboratories across the world, hoping to uncover a way to immunize the global population against HIV/AIDS.

HIV Vaccine Awareness Day is a unique opportunity to bring these researchers into the spotlight. Researchers aren’t the only ones who deserve praise: so do the volunteers and community members who work alongside them.

Throughout the research phase, there is no guarantee that a vaccine will succeed. Volunteers make it possible to test new vaccines.

Finally, community members who support the research get applauded on this day. In large-scale trials, the involvement of the community is integral to the success of the trial. These community members reach into the communities most at risk for HIV/AIDS and encourage them to participate in clinical trials. Together, these individuals work toward a vaccine that will change the world.

May 19: National Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

Since 1992, the United States has celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May. Every day of the month is an opportunity to learn something new about the groups of people. Sandwiched in the middle of this month is National Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

Asian and Pacific Islanders (APIs) rarely get HIV. In fact, the Journal of the International Association of Providers of AIDS Care states that APIs have one of the lowest levels of HIV of any U.S.-based ethnicity. However, since 2001, the rate of infection in APIs has grown.

Researchers found several causes for this recent growth. One of these is that HIV/AIDS is often considered taboo in API culture, and the disease is stigmatized. As a result, HIV isn’t discussed. This silence has loud and clear implications. Among these communities, there is less knowledge of the disease, both how it works and how to prevent it.

May 19 is an annual opportunity to reverse this concerning trend. By focusing on the unique API culture, researchers and providers increase their cultural sensitivity. By doing so, they can hopefully increase knowledge and slow HIV’s spread among APIs.

Increase HIV/AIDS Awareness All Year Round

May isn’t the only month with HIV/AIDS awareness opportunities. Dedicated days during other months provide opportunities to learn more about the disease.

Learn more about HIV and AIDS throughout the year on these dates:

  • Feb. 7: National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day
  • Feb. 28: HIV Is Not a Crime Awareness Day
  • March 10: National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day
  • March 20: National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day
  • April 10: National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day
  • June 5: HIV Long-Term Survivors Awareness Day
  • June 27: National HIV Testing Day
  • Aug. 29: National Faith HIV/AIDS Awareness Day
  • Sept. 18: National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day
  • Sept. 27: National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day
  • Oct. 15: National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day
  • Dec. 1: World AIDS Day

“I recommend that every adult get tested for HIV at least once, and then more frequently for certain populations, such as men who have sex with other men, people who inject drugs and people that have new sex partners,” Dr. McWilliams says. “We want patients to know their HIV status because if they are HIV-positive, we can put them on treatment so they end up being undetectable and therefore not transmittable to their partners or others.”

If you or someone you love has HIV/AIDS, the best care is right here at Weill Cornell Medicine. Please consult with your primary care provider if you have questions around HIV/AIDS testing, prevention and treatment. The Center for Special Studies also provides multidisciplinary, compassionate care for those with HIV/AIDS.