By Sam Ho
Twenty one years ago, on Nov. 7, 1991, America was jolted with the news that basketball legend Magic Johnson had contracted HIV and would immediately retire from the sport.
Almost immediately, Johnson began taking the antiretroviral drug AZT, and his health quickly improved. Just three months later, Johnson returned to basketball to play in the 1992 All-Star Game, where his performance earned him the MVP award.
Johnson’s fans and supporters were delighted by his triumphant return. And through Johnson’s experience, mainstream America began to understand that HIV infection was no longer an automatic death sentence, but a largely treatable, chronic condition.
During the past two decades there has been great progress in the treatment and care of people living with HIV and AIDS. Johnson’s story is now just one of many high-profile examples of how people can manage their HIV and live long, productive lives.
But while proper treatment for people with HIV has become much more available and effective, only 25 percent of Americans with HIV are receiving it.
At the same time, people born after AIDS first emerged in 1981 are now most at risk of becoming infected with HIV. This sad fact highlights how important awareness and education are as we mark World AIDS Day on Saturday.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV infection rates are increasing for Americans between 13 and 30, and most of the new HIV infections reported in this country involve people younger than 30.
It is so important to ensure that all people – especially young people – are aware and educated about HIV/AIDS prevention and the availability of effective treatments.
Let World AIDS Day remind us that about 56,000 Americans become infected with HIV each year, according to the CDC, and that more than 14,000 Americans with AIDS die each year. The CDC estimates that nearly 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV, and that about one in five don’t know they have it.
Regularly testing people most at risk for HIV – and then providing antiretroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS patients – dramatically reduces the number of new infections.
Preventing HIV is not complicated. If you’re sexually active, get tested. Don’t use IV drugs or share needles. Abstain or practice safer sex. With preventive care, patients and their health care providers can fight and manage this disease and slow its spread.
We can’t allow today’s more effective treatments to make us complacent or ambivalent, or to lessen our resolve to find a cure and an AIDS-free generation.
To learn more or to find a place near you to get tested, visit www.actagainst- aids.org.
Sam Ho, M.D., is the chief medical officer of UnitedHealthCare.