During the early years of the epidemic in the 1980s, AIDS was a death sentence. Across the globe, the disease has claimed an estimated 36 million people in the years since. But so many today, particularly in developed countries such as the United States, are surviving with the help of medications born of decades of research for a way to cure and prevent AIDS.

Friday marks World AIDS Day, an international public health campaign promoting awareness of HIV and AIDS prevention and research. It has been nationally recognized each year on Dec. 1 since 1993, when former President Bill Clinton addressed the global crisis while introducing his administration’s task force designed to coordinate AIDS research.

There is cause for celebrating breakthroughs in AIDS research and prevention. Not the least of those is the prospect for a long-awaited vaccine.

The latest attempt at a vaccine against HIV began in South Africa in 2016 with scientists testing a beefed-up version of the only shot ever to show a glimmer of protection.

Developing a vaccine against the virus that causes AIDS is one of science's greatest challenges, and the field is littered with failures. Better medications have greatly improved survival for many people, turning the virus into a chronic disease rather than a quick killer. But there is no cure.

According to Associated Press reporting, the South Africa study is based on the only vaccine attempt ever to show even marginal effectiveness, in Thailand in 2009 — a two-vaccine combination that cut the risk of HIV infection by 31 percent over 3-1/2 years. That wasn't nearly effective enough to use outside of research, but scientists immediately started trying to modify and improve that combination.

The South Africa study enrolls 5,400 sexually active men and women between 18 and 35 at sites across the country. Volunteers for the study are randomly assigned to receive either five vaccine injections over a year or five placebo shots.

Results are expected in 2020. Participants who become infected with HIV will be referred to local medical providers for care and treatment and will be counseled on how to reduce their risk of transmitting the virus.

While the prospect of a vaccine promising but uncertain, there remains the reality of a million AIDS-related deaths a year around the world.

Toward a unified approach in battling HIV/AIDS and related issues, South Carolina government agencies, private-sector organizations, the faith community, public health professionals and others are coming together for a World AIDS Day event at 6 p.m. Thursday on the north steps of the Statehouse in Columbia.

During the event, officials will unveil a new statewide campaign – “Ending the Epidemics” – that will highlight the need for integrated prevention and care approaches designed to end the HIV/AIDS, STD, Hepatitis C and opioid epidemics.

“‘Ending the Epidemics’ in South Carolina will help reduce the number of new HIV, STD and Hepatitis C infections, link individuals to providers, increase viral suppression for those living with HIV/AIDS, and promote prevention efforts,” Gov. Henry McMaster said in proclaiming Dec. 1 as World AIDS Day in South Carolina.

In 2015, nearly 700 adults and adolescents were newly diagnosed with HIV in South Carolina. As of Dec. 31, 2016, there were an estimated 18,998 South Carolina residents living with diagnosed HIV infection, including AIDS, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

"South Carolina ranked 10th in the country and the District of Columbia in the case rate for HIV diagnoses in 2015," said Ali Mansaray, director of DHEC's STD, HIV, and Viral Hepatitis Division. "This year, we hope to raise awareness and encourage people to get tested, and to help those who are living with HIV to start and continue care. Life-saving HIV treatment is available to reduce HIV in the body to very low levels so that those living with HIV stay healthy and are less likely to infect others."

Another vital component to ending the HIV epidemic is ensuring that all persons living with HIV are in a continuous system of medical care and treatment. DHEC estimates that almost 6,000 persons living with HIV are not currently receiving medical treatment. To address this situation, DHEC has implemented a new public health strategy, Data to Care, which offers those living with HIV assistance and support to bring them back into care and help them to stay in treatment.

Testing to know your status regarding HIV/AIDS remains a priority in treating and preventing the spread of the disease. And while South Carolina focuses on prevention and care as priorities, combatting problems related to the spread of HIV/AIDS in a unified approach such as “Ending the Epidemics” is as sensible as it is necessary.

For more information about HIV/AIDS in South Carolina, call DHEC’s AIDS/STD Hotline at 1-800-322-AIDS (1-800-322-2437), or visit DHEC’s website at: scdhec.gov/stdhiv

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