Dec. 1 is a day designated by the United Nations as World AIDS Day. It is a day set aside to bring continued awareness to a dreaded disease that is taking the lives of millions, making orphans of millions more and placing near-breaking point strains on families across the United States and the world.

Here in New York, HIV/AIDS statistics tell a chilling story of a disease that is still ravaging our society and now taking a heavy toll on people over 40. According to the New York State Department of Health’s 2010 annual AIDS Surveillance Report for cases tabulated in 2008, there is still major concern not only for the disease per se, but the possibility that it will morph into more drug-resistant strains, making it harder to treat.

As of December 2008, nearly 126,000 New Yorkers were living with HIV/AIDS. While the burden of HIV/AIDS is heaviest in New York City, with 22 percent of living cases residing outside the five boroughs, statewide, 26 percent of newly diagnosed HIV cases have a concurrent AIDS diagnosis and an additional 7 percent show an AIDS diagnosis within 12 months.

The tabulation of living cases by current age shows that HIV/AIDS should no longer be thought of as a young person disease. While the majority of HIV diagnoses occur before age 40, 75 percent of persons presently living with HIV/AIDS are age 40 or older.

This corresponds to a gloomy world outlook. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has become one of the world’s most serious health and development challenges, especially for the poorer countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Again, the statistics tell a damning story of a deadly, pervasive and endemic disease.

* 33.4 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS.

* More than 25 million people have died of AIDS worldwide since the first cases were reported in 1981.

* In 2008, 2 million people died due to HIV/AIDS and another 2.7 million were newly infected.

* While cases have been reported in all regions of the world, almost all those living with HIV (97 percent) reside in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

* More than 67 percent (approximately 22.4 million people) of those infected are in sub-Saharan Africa.

* In Asia, an estimated 4.7 million people were living with HIV in 2008, including the 350,000 people who became newly infected.

* In Latin America and the Caribbean, there were an estimated 2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in 2008

* In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 1.5 million people were living with HIV/AIDS.

AIDS is truly a global human tragedy. This disease denies people across the world a long and productive life and is today one of the most serious threats to national development at the community and nation-state levels. In my opinion, HIV/AIDS still represents a clear and present danger to the growth and progress of countries and peoples across the world. It is a major challenge for this millennium.

But the news is not all doom and gloom. There have been great strides in treating the disease since it was first recognized in 1981. Today in the industrial world, many people are living longer and contributing more to their communities because of the availability of new and effective medicines. Early diagnoses have also played a role in stemming the tide of HIV infection.

People have become more sensitive to the disease because of ongoing public education. The twin barriers of ignorance and discrimination, although they still exist, have been steadily broken down as people gain a better understanding of the disease and its effects.

However, that’s not the case in the developing world, where the disease is still killing millions of people each and every day. As we recognize World AIDS Day, let us also remember the plight of the less fortunate in the emerging nations of the world. An epidemic is both a medical and social occurrence. Medically, it is the appearance of a serious, often fatal disease in numbers far greater than normal. Socially, it is an event that disrupts the life of a community and causes uncertainty, fear, blame and flight.

The epidemic of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), which was recognized in the United States in 1981, continues today and will continue into the foreseeable future, mirroring epidemics of the past.

Despite the seriousness of the epidemic, particularly in certain geographic areas and among certain demographic groups, America lacked a comprehensive plan on AIDS until 2010. President Barack Obama had promised to rectify this during his election campaign by committing to the creation of a national HIV/AIDS strategy. The strategy, which was launched in July 2010, is structured around three core aims: reducing new HIV infections, increasing access to care and improving health outcomes for people living with HIV, and reducing HIV-related disparities and health inequities.

This is a step in the right direction.