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30th anniversary of AIDS marks progress and increased awareness

Posters released in 1987 by the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts to help dispel common myths about the disease. Photo: AP

This week is the 30th anniversary of the first reported cases of what would become known as AIDS. From those first five patients, doctors knew it was a new disease that severely suppressed the immune system causing a host of life-threatening illnesses like pneumonia and sarcoma.What they didn’t know was how to treat it, let alone find a cure.

“When HIV/AIDS was first identified in the 1980s, the world was shocked by how fast the epidemic spread as we struggled to find a solution,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement commemorating the anniversary.

Thirty years later, there is still no cure for AIDS, but there has been a leap in treatment strategies. Anti-retroviral therapies that have been widely used since the mid-1990s have made a huge difference in extending the length and quality of lives. As the CDC said in a recent statement, “Three decades after the first cases were reported in the United States, HIV infection is no longer inevitably fatal.”

The number of people dying from HIV virus that becomes full-blown AIDS has decreased because of those medical advances.  But there are still about 38,000 patients whose HIV has progressed to AIDS every year.  That rate has been fairly constant since the late 1990s.

CDC reports show cumulative totals of more than 1.1 million people currently living with the HIV virus in the U.S.

A new Google map called AIDSvu created by the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health brings together data from states, counties and sometimes zip codes reporting HIV cases to the CDC.   It’s the first time nationwide data has been collected on one publicly accessible map, which can be customized by  geography, gender, race and age.

Selecting different groups on the map shows who and where the disease is hitting hardest. According to Emory’s data, blacks with HIV continue to be the largest group. They have the second and third highest percentages of the population in most places reporting HIV cases, concentrated in the Northeast, Southeast and Southwest.

One result that may seem surprising is the high number of middle-aged people living with HIV, even though younger groups are often associated with risky sexual behavior.  Though gay men still make up 65 percent of the HIV cases, about 25 percent are women, spread across the U.S. in almost all the places where male cases are reported.

The AIDSvu map is limited by the fact that some states don’t report as much or at all.  It doesn’t include counties with less than 1,000 people or fewer than five HIV cases, nor does it have CDC estimates for the one in five HIV positive people who don’t know they are infected.

What the map does show is all the diagnosed and reported cases from states, counties and even individual zip codes as of the latest reports, from 2008.  It’s a comprehensive resource meant to draw attention to the increasing span of the disease.  Having this data published in one place is an added layer of transparency, which adds to the first coordinated national campaign that began last July.

“AIDSvu let us see the parts of the country most impacted by HIV – and the places where we need to focus HIV prevention resources,” said Dr. Patrick Sullivan, associate professor of epidemiology, Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health in a statement. “Knowing the areas most affected by HIV is critical for meeting the goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.”