By Dr. Larry Wolk
Despite advances in the testing, treatment and control of AIDS during the past 25 years, 12,000 Coloradans are living with AIDS or HIV and many more are unaware they have one of the diseases. As Coloradans, it is our shared responsibility to spread the word that AIDS remains a serious public health threat and the first step in treating it is to know you have it.
The World Health Organization named Dec. 1 World AIDS day 25 years ago to remember the lives lost to AIDS, raise awareness of a significant public health threat and unite the world in a global war on AIDS. Since then, we have made tremendous progress. The number of people worldwide who are newly diagnosed with HIV has steadily decreased since 1997, and the number of AIDS-related deaths has plunged since 2005. People diagnosed with HIV today are living healthier lives.
Despite this progress, too many Coloradans remain at risk. And many of those most at risk – those who have unprotected sex or use needles to take drugs – remain unaware they have the disease, thereby putting more Coloradans at risk. Because AIDS is less prevalent, the danger seems to have slipped from our collective consciousness. Like others across the world, Coloradans can be uncomfortable with the topic of AIDS and discussions about safe sex.
As residents of a state that values health, all Coloradans must come together to remove the stigma associated with these discussions. Let’s encourage those we love to prevent sexually transmitted infections by wearing condoms. Let’s urge those at risk to get tested and, if they find they have the disease, support them through treatment. And let’s tear down the taboo that keeps us from talking about AIDS, and face the fear this disease generates with open, honest discussions about health and accountability.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment wants to increase the proportion of Coloradans who know their HIV/AIDS status from 80 percent to 90 percent and reduce the number of new HIV infections in Colorado by 25 percent by 2017. We are doing this by forging new partnerships and cooperation with local public health agencies, community health centers and hospitals. We are working hard to increase awareness of the disease, open access to health care providers for at-risk Coloradans, and improve treatment outcomes for those afflicted.
The World Health Organization and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment offer resources for people who want to get tested, those at risk and those who want to learn more about the threat of HIV/AIDS. As Colorado’s chief medical officer, I call on educators, medical homes, mental health and substance abuse providers, insurers, correctional facilities, community groups and private businesses to support HIV/AIDS education, testing and access to care. I ask every Coloradan at risk to get tested and urge those they know and love to do the same.
On Dec. 1, let us celebrate the lives saved since the first World AIDS Day 25 years ago. Let us acknowledge the tireless efforts of the millions of health care professionals who have devoted their careers and their lives to the hope of ending this disease. And let us share the responsibility for making Colorado the healthiest state in the nation and keeping the next generation of Coloradans AIDS-free.
Dr. Larry Wolk is Colorado’s chief medical officer and executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.