Blog Infectious Disease

The public health challenges of HIV/AIDS: a 35-year journey

Written by Ali Zuercher, undergraduate in biology at Eastern Mennonite University and participant in the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

“You cannot predict what is going to happen in medicine,” says Dr. Bill Powderly about the world of infectious disease. Prior to 1984, researchers had believed that there were no other illnesses to cure; infectious disease was a dying field. Then, HIV/AIDS was discovered and identified, and scientists like Dr. Powderly began a decades-long journey to understand and control the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Dr. Powderly has notable credentials in the field of HIV-related research, currently serving as the President of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the Dr. J. William Campbell Professor of Medicine and the Larry J. Shapiro Director of the Institute for Public Health at Washington University in St. Louis.

Since its discovery in 1984, HIV/AIDS has infected 80 million people with 40 million dying from HIV/AIDS. After an observational discovery revealed that almost every person who gets HIV will get AIDS, the quest to discover a drug for the unique RNA virus was intensely pursued by Dr. Powderly and other researchers around the world.

By 1994, HIV/AIDS was the leading cause of premature death in persons 25-44 years old. By 1996, researchers developed HIV Protease Inhibitors, stopping HIV replication and dramatically decreasing HIV mortality. This drug transformed HIV from an inevitable fatal infection to a chronic disease that could be managed.

Change in HIV/AIDS diagnoses over time, including significant turning points. Provided by the Centers for Disease Control.

But the fight is not over yet. Although more recent discoveries have produced new therapies that can reduce the transmission rate by 96%, only 25% of those infected with HIV in the U.S. are receiving proper care.

The HIV Care Continuum provided by the Centers for Disease Control.

There are still many barriers to successful HIV care, including poor access to services; stigma and discrimination; poverty, food insecurity, and homelessness; and mental health and addiction issues. With dedicated and passionate scientists like Dr. Powderly, there is still hope in breaking down these barriers to increase access to services and successful outcomes.