Around the world, 34 million people are living with AIDS. World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 seeks to recognize those with the disease as well as remember those who have died from it.

The first World AIDS Day was held in 1988. Since then, great strides have been made in HIV treatment and passing laws protecting the rights of those living with the disease. However, continuing to raise awareness is important, especially since one in six people living with the disease in the United States is unaware they are carriers, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHS).

World AIDS Day honors those living with the disease and those who have passed. It also aims to raise awareness and stop the spread of HIV.

In the United States, gay and bisexual men of all races are most affected by the disease. About 25% of new infections occur among young people aged 13 to 24, and many of them are unaware they have it, which increases the likelihood that they spread the virus to others, according to DHS.

What is AIDS?

AIDS starts with a virus called HIV, which stands for human immunodeficiency virus. Unlike other viruses like a common flu bug, the body can’t fight off HIV, which means that people who acquire it have it for life.

HIV attacks the body’s immune system cells in the blood, weakening the body’s ability to defend itself against other sicknesses. Over time, HIV may diminish the level of CD4 blood cells, which are key immunity cells. Once the blood cell count falls below a certain threshold, people are considered to have full-blown AIDS.

Not everyone who has HIV develops AIDS, particularly with the increasingly effective treatments that are available today. A therapy called antiretroviral therapy (ART), which emerged in the 1990s, helps slow that progression. Before ART, people often developed AIDS within a few years of contracting HIV.

According to DHS:

“Today, a person who is diagnosed with HIV and treated before the disease is far advanced can have a nearly normal life expectancy.”

Because HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids, the virus can be spread through contact with blood, breast milk, or liquids from the sex organs. Most commonly, the disease is spread through unprotected sex or the sharing of needles.

In order for transmission to occur, infected bodily fluids must come into contact with mucous membranes, such as the mouth or sex organs, be inserted directly into the blood stream, or come into contact with broken skin.

What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS?

Many people, but not all, will experience horrible, flu-like symptoms within two to four weeks of acquiring HIV. It’s often described as the “worst flu ever,” according to DHS. This stage is when the body is first fighting the virus and the so-called viral load—the amount of virus detected in the blood stream—is at its highest.

After the initial stage, HIV moves into what’s known as a clinical latency stage where symptoms are generally non-existent. Without proper treatment, this stage can last up to 10 years. With proper treatment, it may last indefinitely. Although the virus is generally asymptomatic during this period, it’s still possible to transmit it to others.

At a certain point, if left untreated, HIV usually transitions to full-blown AIDS, the late stage of HIV when the body’s immune system cells have been vastly depleted. Symptoms include quick weight loss, extreme fatigue, sores, or pneumonia. Sores in colors varying from pink to purple to brown may develop throughout the body.

Does HIV or AIDS cause pain?

Yes. Pain may result from the disease itself, or from consequences of the disease, such as infections, other sicknesses, or certain cancers that having HIV/AIDS increases the risk of. Unfortunately, AIDS-related pain often remains untreated, according to AVERT, a UK-based AIDS charity.

People with HIV or AIDS may experience different types of pain depending on the state of the disease, with more advanced stages usually coming with greater levels of pain. The life-saving antiretroviral drugs can unfortunately be a cause of pain, including neuropathy. Despite the side effects, if a person misses even one dose, it increases the likelihood that the drugs will stop working, according to AVERT.

Types of pain experienced include:

  • Neuropathic pain: This pain results from nerve damage, and commonly affects the hands or feet, resulting in a stinging, burning, or numb sensation. About 30% of people with HIV experience it, according to AVERT.
  • Headaches: The types of headaches may range from stress and tension to migraines.
  • Chest pain: This pain frequently results from infections such as tuberculosis that are developed from low immunity.
  • Gastrointestinal pain: Pain in the digestive system may result from sores or other manifestations of disease.

Living with AIDS is difficult in itself, but related pain can hinder a person’s ability to work and enjoy life. This pain may also lead to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. According to AVERT:

“Pain relief should be seen as a vital component of HIV treatment itself.”

How can I support World AIDS Day?

The 2014 theme of World AIDS Day is Focus, Partner, Achieve: An AIDS-Free Generation. To partake in awareness efforts, share photographs on the official Facing Aids Gallery or add photos to Facebook or Twitter, using #facingaids.

The idea is to help reduce the stigma surrounding the disease so people are more likely to get tested and seek treatment. You might also consider taking a moment to read fact sheets to get informed and share knowledge with others.

If you run a website or would like to incorporate awareness imagery on a blog, DHS offers HTML for a widget where people can find nearby testing locations. There’s also a DHS webpage with a variety of posters, graphics, and badges to print and hang up in classrooms, meeting rooms, or other gathering places.

Social media mavens might want to follow on Pinterest or use the hashtag #WAD2014 when posting on any of the platforms.

How do you plan to get involved on World AIDS Day?

Image by ChiLam Ly via Flickr


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