Tuesday marked the 27th annual World AIDS Day, an international event that celebrates efforts to prevent the spread of HIV and provides a way to support those who continue to suffer.
Health care leaders say significant progress has been made in the fight against AIDS over the last three decades, and new treatment options mean that "HIV has gone from a 'death sentence' to a management and treatable chronic illness," U.S. News & World Report noted.
In the process, religious leaders have emerged as key allies of doctors and AIDS activists, because they are trusted sources of information for thousands of at-risk communities.
"Religious leaders are in the unique position of being able to alter the course of the epidemic," UNICEF reported in its guide to faith-based AIDS activism, noting that they can shape social values, promote responsible behavior and reduce the stigma surrounding those who are diagnosed with the disease.
Religious communities can also turn policymakers' attention to efforts targeted at disease prevention and treatment, and many religious nonprofits have done exactly that over the past 30 years, wrote Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, for The Huffington Post.
However, the relationship between faith leaders and AIDS-activists has not been conflict-free, Marshall noted. Although concerned about the people affected by the disease, pastors can't compromise on the tenets on their faith, such as handing out condoms to unmarried young people when the religion teaches abstinence before marriage.
"To degrees that are difficult to measure, religious attitudes affect political and social approaches to vulnerable groups: notably men who have sex with men, intravenous drug users, sex workers and adolescent girls," Marshall said.
When the AIDS epidemic was first grabbing national headlines, many believers were reluctant to help victims because they sensed that the disease was God's punishment for immoral behavior, although that opinion is much less common today, according to a new research analysis from Public Religion Research Institute.
"In 1992, more than one-third (36 percent) of Americans agreed that AIDS might be God's punishment for immoral sexual behavior; in 2013, only 14 percent said they agreed with this statement," PRRI reported.
Although there is much progress to celebrate this week in the fight against AIDS, 35 million people remain infected worldwide, and there is still work for faith leaders, researchers, doctors and others to do, Marshall wrote.
"Not all battles are behind us," she said.
Email: [email protected], Twitter: @kelsey_dallas