Changing people's behavior is key to stopping the epidemic.

HIV—the human immunodeficiency virus—first appeared in the United States in 1981.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of new infections peaked in the mid-1980s, with about 130,000 people contracting the virus per year. Since then, the number of new infections has dropped dramatically.

What changed? Behavior.

Risky behavior accounts for two of the three main ways HIV gets passed from one person to another: having sex with someone who's infected or sharing needles or syringes. More and more people are getting the message that they should avoid such behaviors or take steps to protect themselves, such as using condoms.

But much remains to be done. HIV still infects 55,000 Americans a year, the CDC estimates.

And many people lack access to information and services that could help them reduce their HIV risk.

Although more than half of new HIV infections occur before the age of 25, for example, many young people don't receive comprehensive sex education. According to a research review by APA's Committee on Psychology and AIDS , sex ed that encourages abstinence, promotes condom use and teaches sexual communication skills can help protect young people from disease.

And the U.S. Center for Substance Treatment estimates that the treatment needs of two-thirds of the Americans with serious substance abuse problems aren't being met.

How psychologists are helping

Psychologists are working to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS at every level:

  • Individuals. The CDC estimates that about a million Americans are now living with HIV or AIDS, which is the final stage of HIV infection. For many, medication has transformed HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a chronic condition. Psychologists are exploring ways to help people stick to their treatment regimens, including better patient education and reminder systems.
  • At-risk populations. Psychologists and other experts have also developed interventions aimed at changing risky behaviors among such high-risk groups as men who have sex with men and African-American youth living in low-income neighborhoods. The CDC's list of evidence-based interventions reflects a growing appreciation of behavioral interventions by the medical and research community, says a 2008 article in APA's Monitor on Psychology.
  • General public. Other efforts spread the prevention message even wider. In Ethiopia, the Philippines and other countries, popular radio and television soap operas draw on psychological theories to help change people's behavior. In Ethiopia, for instance, men who listened to two radio programs that tackled HIV prevention and other social themes were four times more likely to seek HIV testing than non-listeners, as reported in a 2007 article in APA's Monitor on Psychology.