In Spring 2017, AIDS.gov, the federal government’s HIV and AIDS information site, will change its URL to HIV.gov. And though the change may seem minor, it reflects a progressive shift away from 20th century attitudes about HIV, attitudes which also prevent healthcare providers from ending the epidemic.
Using “AIDS” and “HIV” interchangeably is inaccurate …
The ’80s and ’90s press helped popularize the term GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) and then AIDS (Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome) before scientists discovered the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS. “When the virus was discovered. HIV became a more precise way to refer to a virus as opposed to an arbitrary syndrome,” wrote Hornet‘s Senior Health Innovation Strategist, Alex Garner. “There is a very clear distinction between a virus and a syndrome yet it’s not uncommon to see people use HIV and AIDS interchangeably.”
… and ignores current advances in HIV treatment.
Though many Americans and people around the world still die from AIDS, it’s no longer an expected outcome of HIV because many people living with HIV take anti-retroviral medications to help suppress the virus to low or undetectable levels. As a result, many never develop AIDS (medically defined as either when your CD4 white blood cells fall below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood or when your body contracts an AIDS-related opportunistic infection as a result of having a weakened immune system).
Even those living with AIDS can still return to a healthy CD4 count with low or undetectable levels of HIV, and new prevention options like PrEP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis) have helped reduce the new number of HIV cases to begin with. However, while the number of new HIV infections in the U.S. has been trending downward, even before the commercial availability of PrEP, the rate of infections among gay/bi men continues to go up even today.
Fewer people are seeking information on AIDS …
These days, most people living with HIV use “HIV” rather than “AIDS” to refer to themselves and the larger HIV community. Most people who visit the government’s HIV website do so through searches on HIV, not AIDS. The change also follows other attempts to de-emphasize AIDS, such as the push to rename World AIDS Day to World HIV Day.
… and talking about HIV encourages more folks to seek treatment.
The change is more than semantic. One director of infectious diseases at a North Carolina health center says that repeatedly focusing on AIDS discourages at-risk populations from seeking medical treatment because they’re afraid of the stigma associated with AIDS. Focusing on HIV, however—its current state and the fact that it’s treatable—encourages more folks to come in; that is, it literally saves lives.