Red ribbon for HIV/AIDS awareness. World AIDS Day is Dec. 1, 2012. (Photo: Thinkstock)It has been 31 years since AIDS was first discovered, and organizations the world over are marking World AIDS Day on December 1 by urging people to learn the facts about HIV and show their commitment to raising awareness by wearing a curl of red ribbon.
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"Only 25 percent of the 1/1 million people in the United States infected with HIV have optimal treatment to where their viral load is undetectable," said Dr. Ronald O. Valdiserri, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health and the Director of the Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy. "We know we have a ways to go."
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According to data from the U.K. National AIDS Trust, more than 90 percent of people contract HIV through vaginal or anal sex without a condom, and the majority of infections are passed on by people who don't even realize that they have the virus that causes AIDS. Approximately a quarter of people living with HIV have not been officially diagnosed. (You can take their HIV awareness quiz here.)
Practicing "safer sex" is still one of the main ways people can lower their risk of contracting HIV. According to information from Planned Parenthood, the guidelines haven't changed much since the 1990s.
- Try "no-risk" safer sex play like masturbation (with or without a partner), cyber sex, phone sex, and talking about your fantasies.
- Engage in low-risk safer sex play like kissing, "grinding," oral sex (preferably with a condom or dental dam), and using sex toys.
- When it comes to HIV, oral sex is safer but if you don't use a condom, you can still end up with herpes, syphilis, CMV, gonorrhea, or hepatitis B.
- Use a barrier method of birth control if you do have intercourse, in order to protect yourself from sexually transmitted diseases.
"It is about exploring the many other ways you and your partner can turn each other on," the experts at Planned Parenthood point out. "Not only is it a way to discover new sexual pleasures, it's also safer."
In January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that more Americans are practicing safer sex. According to their data, the number of people engaging in risky sexual or drug related behavior dropped from 13 percent of men and 11 percent of women in 2002 to 10 percent of men and 8 percent of women in 2010. The behavior they flagged included gay and bisexual sex, illicit drug use, having multiple sex partners, or having a partner who injects illegal drugs, report author and CDC health scientist Anjani Chandra said.
But the numbers may be misleading; avoiding risky sexual activity isn't necessarily the same thing as practicing safe sex, especially for women.
"For women, we don't really see that the decline is due to any variation in sexual risk behaviors, whereas for men we see substantial difference by race," Chandra said.
Members of the Obama Administration are quick to point out that, beginning in 2014, people with HIV will no longer be denied health insurance for pre-existing conditions.
"Ongoing implementation of the Affordable Care Act means tens of thousands of persons living with HIV will gain health coverage and access to life-extending treatment," wrote Gayle Smith and Dr. Grant Colfax from the Office of National AIDS Policy. "Already the Act has increased access to HIV testing and other prevention services for millions of Americans."
"World AIDS Day is a time when we remember the friends and loved ones lost to this terrible disease," they continued. "More needs to be accomplished in the domestic and global fight against HIV. But by following the science, making smarter investments, and supporting a sustained, collective response, we are making tangible progress."