AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is a fatal illness for which there is currently no known cure. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the virus that causes AIDS. The disease results in the deterioration of organ functions and development of rare cancers. The symptoms initially appear in the liver or other human organs. The virus spreads throughout the human body resulting in an autoimmune problem that leaves the person unable to fight off infections or particular diseases.

The first cases in the United States were reported in 1981, although the disease originated in Africa and is believed to have been spread to the United States, Canada, and other countries by a homosexual flight attendant. Today, AIDS is found throughout the world. Approximately one third of adults and children in Africa are infected with the AIDS virus, and AIDS has also taken millions of lives in the United States and Europe. The AIDS pandemic is significant for its medical and social impacts on society. Stratification, labeling, and marginalization are some of these effects. In addition, because HIV can be transmitted through sexual contact, these impacts and effects are of particular concern for sexual assault and molestation victims and the professionals who work with these victims. This entry gives a general overview of the AIDS pandemic, focusing specifically on the modes of transmission, the sociological impact, and the U.S. government’s response.

Transmission of AIDS/HIV

AIDS/HIV is transmitted several ways. The virus is primarily passed from one person to another via sexual contact. HIV is carried in blood, semen, and vaginal secretions. Men can contract AIDS/HIV through unprotected sexual contact with a male or female already infected with the virus. Married men engaging in extramarital affairs with other women or men can also transmit the virus to their wives. Vaginal intercourse is less risky than anal intercourse as a means of transmission, but the majority of heterosexual women who have contracted the virus have done so through unprotected vaginal intercourse with an infected partner. In addition, the AIDS virus can be acquired through tainted blood transfusions, although currently the risk of this form of transmission is low since all blood donors are screened and blood donations are not accepted from individuals in high-risk groups.

Another method of transmission is through contaminated needles used to inject drugs. If a drug user injects himself or herself with a used needle that has traces of blood containing HIV, he or she may become infected. Prevention of this form of transmission is the rationale underlying needle exchange programs for injection drug users. However, these programs have not gotten widespread support in the United States because some people feel that they encourage illegal drug use.

Sociological Impact

The AIDS pandemic is associated with major sociological consequences. First, the disease places a severe strain on the medical resources of every country in the world, but especially of some African and Asian countries where medical resources are already scarce. There is limited treatment for most forms of AIDS, and research has not resulted in a general vaccine or overall cure. Some drugs can bring the virus into remission for a period of months or years. However, those drugs are expensive and often not available to many AIDS sufferers.

Recent research indicates that education efforts regarding AIDS/HIV have had some success. Such programs have prompted greater utilization of condoms and more emphasis on monogamous relationships. Nevertheless, the research also indicates that there is still a relatively high level of risk-taking behavior among some groups, particularly teens and injection drug users.

Among the general public, AIDS/HIV was originally perceived as a problem only affecting gay men. This perception changed as new cases in the gay community decreased after AIDS activist groups stressed personal responsibility in preventing AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). At the same time, there was an increase in cases among heterosexuals. Nevertheless, people with AIDS/HIV continue to experience stigma and discrimination and are marginalized by many in the general community. Therefore, in addition to dealing with the physical effects of the disease, infected individuals must also cope with the psychological trauma caused by stigmatization and resulting social isolation.

Government Response to the Problem

The U.S. government has been slow to respond to the AIDS epidemic. Some observers argue that this, too, is a result of the perception that the pandemic only or primarily affected gay men. In addition, conservative political and religious groups were opposed to programs that promoted safe sex, condom distribution, and needle exchanges because they felt such programs encouraged immoral and illegal behavior. Much of the funding for research and the development of effective treatments and vaccines has come from private entities, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The media also now devote time to exploring the AIDS problem and have played a role in raising public awareness. Much of the public has begun to understand that AIDS/HIV is a disease potentially affecting everyone around the world. The scientific community and public focus has turned to the general health threat associated with the spread of AIDS/HIV.

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