(RNN) - Since it was first recognized in 1981, AIDS has evolved into a global pandemic responsible for more than 30 million deaths worldwide.
Despite the introduction of new treatments and decreased death rate, the spread of AIDS continues to be a major problem.
"People with HIV continue to be stigmatized and discriminated, and that limits the ability to confront the epidemic," said Dr. Carlos del Rio, co-director of the Emory University Center for AIDS Research.
To educate the public about prevention, World AIDS Day is held annually on Dec. 1 and Saturday marks the 24th time health professionals will promote HIV and AIDS prevention.
Widely thought of as the most recognized international health awareness day, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, or UNAIDS, organized the event until 2004. Since then, it has been organized by the World AIDS Campaign's Global Steering Committee.
"World AIDS Day has been, for many years, an opportunity for people to think about what AIDS means, what it has done to us as a society," del Rio said.
Each World AIDS Day is centered around a theme used to educate the public on topics related to AIDS awareness. The themes typically last one or two years and have included topics such as "AIDS and the Family," "Stigma and Discrimination," and "Universal Access and Human Rights."
Saturday is second World AIDS Day with the theme of "Getting to Zero," which is a campaign that will last until 2015. The theme revolves around the World AIDS Day target of "zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS related deaths."
"The potential for creative, connected and meaningful campaigning is really exciting," said World AIDS Campaign Africa Director Linda Mafu in a statement. "Our organization will focus on zero AIDS related deaths, but the choice is there for others to pick a different 'zero' or all three."
Organizers have set 10 goals to reach by 2015, including reducing sexually transmitted cases of HIV by half, preventing all new HIV infections among people who use drugs and addressing HIV/AIDS-related health needs of women and girls.
And this year, World AIDS Day is specifically focusing on working towards an AIDS-free generation.
"Maybe not for my children's or their children's generation, but two or three generations from now, maybe we can see AIDS as something from the past," said del Rio. "And I think that would be a lofty goal and fantastic accomplishment."
The theme comes at a dire time in the fight against HIV, with only one third of the 15 million who are HIV positive receiving proper treatment. And despite the advancements made with antiretrovirals drugs, the number of new infections exceeds the number of people starting treatment.
However, del Rio suggested World AIDS Day and other prevention programs have helped because the most recent data shows a drop in the number of new cases and deaths.
Another major goal of Getting to Zero is rights-based, ensuring that people living with HIV/AIDS have a voice among policymakers by advocating for the removal of laws that punish drug users, homosexuals and sex workers.
"Decision makers need to understand that people living with HIV, the marginalized, the dispossessed, all of us, want our rights," Mafu said.
But perhaps the most basic mission of World AIDS Day is to promote support for those who have HIV/AIDS.
"We can take care of them with compassion and provide them help," said del Rio. "Helping people to take care of themselves is a very important part of addressing the epidemic."
Copyright 2012 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.
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