The first World AIDS Day was December 1, 1988. That same year, the Harvard School of Public Health AIDS Initiative (HAI) was established to help end the epidemic. Max Essex, the Mary Woodard Lasker Professor of Health Sciences at HSPH and Chair of HAI, has been involved in HIV/AIDS research since the beginning of the epidemic.
HSPH: The disease that became known as AIDS was first reported in 1981. What’s the state of the epidemic today?
ESSEX: Overall, I think the epidemic is at a plateau. Today, about 35 million people worldwide are living with HIV. That number isn’t rising nearly as rapidly as it used to, but neither is it decreasing as rapidly as people would like. There are several reasons for that. About 50,000 people in the U.S. are newly infected with HIV each year and several million people are newly infected each year in the world. The number of people with HIV isn’t going down faster, in part, because many people are being kept alive longer. There’s been tremendous success with the utilization of drugs to save people’s lives. As more and more lives are saved, the total number of people living with HIV increases. We have to prevent more new infections to compensate for the fact that people who are HIV-infected might now live for 20 to 40 years, as opposed to dying in six or eight years.