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World AIDs Day: Where are we now?

1 December marks World AIDs Day
1 December marks World AIDs Day

HIV/AIDS is one of the most critical public health issues on the planet and affects people from all walks of life. In this guest blog, Isabelle examines just how far we've come in understanding HIV/AIDs over the last decade and how much remains to be done in the fight against this virus.

Transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) targets the immune system and weakens the body’s defences against various infections and diseases. The most advanced stage of an HIV infection is Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which may take several years to develop and is characterized by certain cancers, infections and other signs.

Barriers to progress

Although the virus was only discovered in early 1980s, the World Health Organization states that HIV has claimed 34 million lives so far. And by the end of 2014, there were nearly 37 million people—including a significant number of children—living with it.

Currently, it is estimated that only 51% of people infected with HIV know their status. This poses two major problems: 1) Those who do not know that they have the virus will consequently not be taking the proper medication and their health will rapidly decline, and 2) they might unknowingly spread the virus to others.

People either don’t want to get tested (or they don’t suspect that they could be infected), or they don’t have access to HIV testing services. This, in part, could be due to social stigma and discrimination, which is an ongoing problem in the campaign to end HIV/AIDS. The root of this widespread prejudice is a lack of education.

For example, children of infected yet educated mothers are more likely to survive than children whose mothers don’t have education. Other uninformed actions such as unprotected sex, having multiple partners, and forcing sexual experiences on young girls, for example, are all a result of a general unawareness as well as harmful cultural/traditional practices.

This is particularly problematic in certain regions of the world—such as the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia—where the number of new infections as well as the number of AIDS-related deaths have increased.

A worldwide movement

World AIDs Day 2015
Tackling ignorance is at the heart of this years' campaign

Although there is no cure for the infection, antiretroviral (ARV) drugs can control the virus and enable a person to go on a lead a healthy life. Millions of people are already accessing this treatment. Furthermore, although some regions are not faring well, there is a significant, overall downward trend in the number of new HIV infections as well as AIDS-related deaths.

With help of global campaigns like World AIDS Day, which has taken place on the 1st of December every year since 1988, the Sustainable Development Goal to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030 seems achievable. UNAIDS is using a “fast-track approach” to tackle this health issue, which includes strategies such as:

• Focusing on the locations, populations, and programmes that deliver the greatest impact.
• Catalysing innovation for the people who need it most.
• Engaging local leadership for targeted, sustained, and accountable responses.

Proactive solutions

There are several approaches in progress or that still need to be undertaken in the fight against HIV/AIDS. One such approach would be to increase the funding and spending on HIV/AIDS-related strategies, which would be used for research; the implementation of widespread HIV testing services for early diagnoses; and the free distribution of contraceptives and ARV drugs, as well as easily accessible health care for mothers and children.

There also needs to be a focus on and targeting of individual risk factors, such as sharing injecting equipment; the incorrect and/or inconsistent use of condoms during sex; and mother-to-child transmissions.

Importantly, we need to improve education and break down the prejudice that’s rooted in communities. This can be done on a grassroots level, and includes zero tolerance for gender-based violence, especially rape, which should be reflected in national laws against perpetrators.

Bringing more publicity to this issue is also a great help. An example of this would be to increase media attention on it, or a celebrity speaking openly about their HIV status, like actor Charlie Sheen did in mid-November.

A not-so-bleak future

A nurse explaining HIV prevention measures
An SOS nurse explains how to prevent the transmission of HIV in Buru Buru, Nairobi

Today, being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS does not signify a death sentence as it did years ago. With the help of the abovementioned approaches—on a coordinated, international level—we can make significant strides towards progress in terms of health and societal attitudes.

In his message for World AIDS Day, Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS, expresses hope for the future:

“Ending the AIDS epidemic means that adolescent girls and young women have access to education and appropriate HIV and sexual and reproductive health services. It means key populations, such as people who inject drugs and transgender people, have full access to health services delivered with dignity and respect. And it means that every child is born free from HIV, and that they and their mothers not only survive but thrive.

This is an exciting time in the AIDS response. We are building momentum towards a sustainable, equitable and healthy future for all.”