By Alberto Cortés, Executive Director of Mama’s Kitchen

This article originally appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune Nov. 27, 2015 

Aheart-665186_640n estimated 1.2 million people are living with HIV in the United States. We know that as a result of advances in treatment in the form of effective antiretroviral therapy, life expectancy of people living with HIV has been greatly extended.

However, without medical care, HIV will still lead to an AIDS diagnosis and early death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 14,000 people with AIDS in the United States die each year. AIDS-related deaths happen when people with HIV do not receive the testing, treatment and care that is so critical for long-term well being.

With proper, ongoing treatment, people with HIV can live longer, healthier, happier lives and also significantly reduce the risk of passing HIV to others because treatment also reduces the amount of virus in their bodies. Yet only 30 percent of people with HIV in the nation are maintaining a low viral presence.

Despite the advances in treatment, far too many are diagnosed too late to experience the full benefits of life-extending treatment. According to the CDC, one-quarter of people diagnosed with HIV infection were simultaneously diagnosed with AIDS in 2013. They were likely infected for many years without knowing it. A late diagnosis is a missed opportunity for both treatment and prevention.

Today more people are living with HIV than ever before, but socioeconomic factors like poverty, discrimination, stigma and homophobia can limit access to health care. They serve to discourage individuals from seeking HIV testing and treatment. Additionally, language barriers and concerns about immigration status present additional barriers to accessing care, treatment and prevention services. In part, due to social and economic challenges including discrimination, communities of color have higher rates of HIV. The African-American community faces the most severe burden — though only 14 percent of the population nationwide, 41 percent of people living with HIV are African-American. Latinos — 17 percent of the U.S. population — account for 21 percent of the new HIV infections.

universal-health-care-1095124_1920A comprehensive response that considers and addresses the socioeconomic barriers is critical for the successful treatment of HIV. San Diego County residents benefit from a network of HIV-related service providers that include Christie’s Place, Mama’s Kitchen, Family Health Centers of San Diego, Vista Community Clinic, The San Diego LGBT Community Center, and Stepping Stone San Diego, among others. These organizations address the unique needs of people with HIV in an effective, culturally appropriate, non-judgmental and affirming manner with HIV testing, child care, home-delivered meals, out-patient medical treatment, mental health services and substance abuse treatment, among other services.

What can you do? Get tested for HIV. If you are at high risk for HIV infection, become informed on about how HIV can be prevented. Learn about pre-exposure prophylasis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). Along with other prevention methods like condoms, PrEP can offer protection from HIV by taking a pill every day. This pill contains two medicines that are also used to treat HIV. If you take PrEP and are exposed to HIV through sex or injection drug use, these medicines can work to keep the virus from taking hold in your body. PrEP does not protect against other sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy.

PEP is an HIV prevention strategy where HIV-negative individuals take HIV medications after coming in contact with HIV. PEP reduces the risk of becoming infected with a month-long course of drugs that must be started within 27 hours after possible exposure. PrEP and PEP are two critical options that will get us closer to reducing the HIV transmission to zero.

Support the battle. World AIDS Day, the first-ever global health day started in 1988, is Dec. 1. There are several local events, such as the San Diego AIDS Walk or Mama’s Kitchen’s Tree of Life Ceremony, to commemorate those who have been affected by this global pandemic. Wear the universal symbol of HIV awareness, the red ribbon, to show your support, educate those around you, get tested and make time to light a candle to reflect on those we have lost.