Each year since 1988, the first of December has been designated as World AIDS Day, a chance to raise awareness and mourn the lives of those lost to the AIDS pandemic. It also can be used as a chance to clear up misconceptions about a disease that is still highly stigmatized, despite massive steps forward in treatment and social recognition.

HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, attacks the immune system. If not properly treated, it can develop into AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Virus. The good news is, there have been some excellent medical advances that have transformed the diagnosis of HIV from a death sentence to a manageable, chronic illness. It is entirely possible to continue a happy, successful life with a partner in the face of a positive diagnosis.

An estimated one in four Americans still think HIV can be transferred from sharing a drinking glass, but a quarter of our population also believes that the sun revolves around the Earth, according to a 2014 survey. The answer is a definite no — contact with infected saliva will not spread the virus. Either will urine or sweat. HIV/AIDS is not the flu — if an infected person sneezes in your vicinity, you will most certainly be okay. The only way the virus can be spread is by blood, breast milk and male and female sexual fluids. People with HIV/AIDS are not lepers, so there is no reason for people to regard them with fear. Prevention is quite easy in Western society, with abundant access to condoms and clean needles. Meanwhile, our friends in other parts of the world are still in need of clean needles for the injection of vaccines and medication, as well as education about and access to means of safe sex.

Have you heard about PrEP? There is still not a cure for HIV/AIDS, though there are medications that make the virus manageable. There are also medications that can be taken by partners of those who are infected in order to ensure their safety. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a treatment for people who at at high risk of getting HIV. When the pill is taken every day, the medicine can work to prevent the virus from establishing a permanent infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It has been listed to be incredibly effective when properly taken.

The CDC estimates that 1.1 million people in the US are living with HIV, with roughly 166,000 people unaware of their status; this leads to people spreading HIV without knowing they have it, exacerbating the spread of the virus. It is therefore of the utmost importance that people take control of their health and get tested. Routine testing for HIV is highly recommend to ensure the health of more people than just yourself. The virus is not immediately detectable, so it is important to get follow-up checks as well.

A large reason why people do not get tested or speak about their diagnosis is because of the stigma that exists in society. When HIV/AIDS first came to the public’s attention, it was branded a “gay cancer” and those who were infected with labeled to be bad people — sexually wanton or drug users. HIV does not discriminate. It is certainly not a punishment for a group of people based on their sexual preference. If we stopped shaming people and forcing them to live their lives in fear due to their medical realities, then people would be a lot more open about diagnosis and treatment, thus leading to a reduction in spread of the virus.

The silence of the Reagan Administration at the start of the AIDS crisis enormously wounded our country and led to many deaths. Scientists are working towards a cure, and the funding of many individuals and corporations are aiding the goal of finding a cure, providing prevention and working on treatment options. However, we as as society must end our silence and works towards clearing up misconceptions and destroying stigmas. HIV/AIDS education and treatment is still needed in many parts of the world, but we can start right now by making our own nation a more enlightened and tolerable place.

Emma Polini is the managing editor of the Van Alstyne Leader, Anna-Melissa Tribune and Prosper Press. What do you want in your paper? Email her at epolini@heralddemocrat.com to let her know.