On June 5, 1981, doctors in Los Angeles first reported a disease that eventually and fundamentally changed the world: HIV/AIDS.
Now, 30 years later, scientists have tried to understand HIV/AIDS and the resulting pandemic as the virus continues to surpass the capabilities of the human immune system. But consistent research, policy changes and activist movements bring hope for the estimated 1.1 million Americans and nearly 34 million people worldwide living with the disease.
Even though HIV/AIDS is not curable, it has evolved into something much more manageable, said Katy Wilson, director of Belmont Health Services.
“One of the big things about HIV is it is no longer a death sentence. It’s actually a chronic illness,” she said.
Even with this progress, there is still room for concern.
One out of five Americans who are infected with HIV don’t know it, according to aids.gov. While the disease, in the early years, was found to be disproportionately high among sexually active gay men, the new cases today — 56,000 diagnoses in the U.S. this year — are in heterosexual men and women, and the highest percentage of those are in the 20-24 age group.
There are advances in drug combinations that can stall the onset of AIDS for years, but without awareness, testing and early treatment, the outcome is no less deadly than it was three decades ago.
World AIDS Day – Dec. 1 – is now observed in 190 countries. This is the 24th year of the awareness effort that reaches tens of millions on several continents.
As national awareness of HIV/AIDS has increased, Wilson and the Health Services staff are doing their part to keep Belmont students educated so they can have resources to deal with concerns about HIV/AIDS or any sexually transmitted disease.
Wilson said Health Services has always offered any kind of routine testing for HIV and other STDs. A student can call and make a confidential appointment.
“That would be the case in any primary care clinic and especially in a college setting,” Wilson said.
Since Health Services is now capable of electronically accessing medical records, even more confidentiality is possible.
The clinic can also refer students to other places in town such as the local health department, comprehensive care centers, or other walk-in clinics where students can receive even more anonymity, she said.
In the 37 years Wilson has been in the health field, she has seen a change in how much information is available regarding HIV/AIDS. With the Internet, much of that information can be misleading.
“Sometimes websites will look very official and they aren’t at all,” she said.
People can get the wrong information, so if they question their health, they are encouraged to come to Health Services, have a private conversation and let someone with training help them make decisions, she added.
Health Services also offer sources on its website to direct students to credible sites by the American Health Association and the Centers for Disease Control when seeking health-related information.
Although the amount of information, both accurate and inaccurate, has increased, Wilson feels the proportion of students seeking information has not changed.
“People are always seeking information about things they may not understand, or not know how to deal with,” she said. “We try to give students, and the employees that we see as well, up-to-date, evidence-based studies, places they can go for additional information. If they need to be referred, we try to refer them to someone whose reputation we are familiar with, et cetera.”
In addition to an annual health fair, Health Services provides several health information events every year, as well as group and individual sessions and appointments. In the past, they have hosted a variety of seminars regarding HIV/AIDS.
Whether it is through Belmont Health Services or other local outlets, knowledge about HIV/AIDS is available to create a more aware college environment.