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The Awareness Gap

Testing, understanding and treating HIV is as important as ever



Twenty-one years ago, on Nov. 7, 1991, America was jolted with the news that basketball legend Magic Johnson had contracted HIV and would retire from the sport.

Almost immediately, Johnson began taking the antiretroviral drug AZT, and his health quickly improved. Just three months later, Johnson returned to basketball to play in the 1992 All-Star Game, where his performance earned him the MVP award.

Johnson's fans and supporters were delighted by his triumphant return. Through Johnson's experience, mainstream America began to understand that HIV infection was no longer an automatic death sentence, but a largely treatable, chronic condition.

We are fortunate that during the past two decades there has been great progress in the treatment and care of people living with HIV and AIDS. With early detection and increasingly effective treatments, Johnson's story is now just one of many high-profile examples of how people can manage their HIV and live long, productive lives. But while proper treatment for people with HIV has become much more available and effective, only 25 percent of Americans with HIV are receiving it.

At the same time, people born after AIDS first emerged in 1981 are now most at risk of becoming infected with HIV. This sad fact highlights how important awareness and education is as we mark World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HIV infection rates are increasing for Americans between 13 and 30, and most of the new HIV infections reported in this country involve people under 30.

Let World AIDS Day remind us that about 56,000 Americans become infected with HIV each year, and that more than 14,000 Americans with AIDS die each year. The CDC estimates that nearly 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV, and that about one in five don't know they have the virus.

As was the case with Magic Johnson and other courageous Americans 20 years ago, we can't allow today's more effective treatments to make us complacent or ambivalent. To learn more, or to find a place near you to get tested, visit

Sam Ho, M.D., is the chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare.

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