In Honor of World AIDS Day, Learn How You Can Help End the HIV/AIDS Epidemic
Anthony J. Santella, DrPH, MCHES, an infectious disease expert and the University’s COVID-19 coordinator, reflects on the importance of World AIDS Day, which is commemorated globally every December 1 to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, honor lives lost, and pay tribute to people living with HIV, particularly long-term survivors.
December 1, 2021
By Anthony J. Santella, DrPH, MCHES
World AIDS Day, which is observed on December 1, is a day where those of us who work in the field share stories and experiences. This year’s theme is Ending the HIV Epidemic: Equitable Access, Everyone's Voice. I’d like to start this blog by sharing my voice.
I’ve known about HIV/AIDS since I was in high school in the 1990s in Norwalk, Connecticut. While there wasn’t much, if any, school-based sex education, I knew it was an illness that disproportionately impacted gay and bisexual men. My community. A community I loved as a young adult living in New York City after graduating from UConn in 2001. My friends and I certainly engaged in our own questionable behaviors that put us at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). I have many close friends and colleagues who are living with HIV/AIDS who I deeply care about.
Fast forward to 2003, I began working in the field while earning a master’s degree in public health at Emory University. I was hired by a dynamic health education faculty member who trusted me with recruiting gay and bisexual men to take part in HIV vaccine clinical trials. I loved this work. It was an opportunity to roll up my sleeves and practice what I was learning in the classroom the very next day on the streets of Atlanta.
‘My work focuses on developing and evaluating strategies to improve HIV prevention, care and treatment services ... with the goal of ending the epidemic in my lifetime’
I continued that work even as a public health doctoral student at Tulane University in New Orleans. My dissertation ultimately focused on hospital outcomes of people with HIV. After earning my doctoral degree in 2007, I was hired by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as the inaugural director of HIV care and treatment policy, planning, and implementation. While I loved my work, I found that governmental public health wasn’t for me. I entered academia full-time in 2009 and have been conducting HIV/AIDS and STD-related research ever since.
My work focuses on developing and evaluating strategies to improve HIV prevention, care and treatment services, to inform program and policy development, with the goal of ending the epidemic in my lifetime. I focus on expanding HIV testing to non-traditional settings, such as dentistry, increasing access to the HIV prevention pill to the suburbs, and ensuring historically forgotten communities such as persons experiencing homelessness and persons who are justice-involved have the tools and resources they need to achieve their full health potential.
Since the start of the epidemic in 1981, there have been more than 22,000 CT residents living with HIV/AIDS.
Currently, there are about 11,000 CT residents living with HIV/AIDS.
In the last year for which there is publicly available data (2019), more than half (54%) of the 220 new diagnoses were among gay and bisexual men.
Black and Latinx gay and bisexual men are the sub-populations most represented by new diagnoses. In fact, Blacks account for 12% of the CT population and 47% of new HIV diagnoses.
‘Achieve health equity for all’
Now that you know a bit more about how HIV/AIDS impact CT residents, let me tell you three things everyone should know about this illness.
HIV/AIDS is a treatable, chronic illness. Someone diagnosed early can live a long, healthy life if they are adherent to antiretroviral medicines. The days of taking dozens of medications every day is over. Many people with HIV take a single, once-a-day medication that combines multiple drugs.
There are two Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved medications to prevent HIV infection in HIV-negative persons who are at risk. These medications are called pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP. A primary care provider can prescribe PrEP.
HIV science has established that Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U). This means people with HIV who achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load – the amount of HIV in the blood – by taking and adhering to antiretroviral medications cannot sexually pass on the virus to others.
Additionally, everyone, regardless of their level of risk, should know their HIV status. There are many options for free testing. Click here to find a place near you.
Lastly, do your part to advocate for school-based, age-appropriate, medically-accurate sex education. We know young people are waiting longer to have sex and are more likely to use contraceptives. However, a few hours a year of classroom instruction is not enough to effectively teach them about responsible sexual behavior and how to protect their health.
On this World AIDS Day, I thank you in advance for supporting those affected by and living with HIV/AIDS and for doing your part to end this epidemic and achieve health equity for all.