World AIDS Day: Keeping HIV and AIDS on the agenda

Today is World AIDS Day, the annual focus of efforts to increase awareness, improve education about HIV and AIDS, and to improve the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS by de-bunking stereotypes and myths which lead to  prejudice and stigmatisation.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that globally, around 34m people are living with the disease, of which 3.2m are children. Since identification of the HIV virus in 1984, more than 35m people have died of HIV or AIDS, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history and the world’s leading infectious killer – which has in places reversed other progress in tackling extreme poverty.

The good news is people who are fortunate enough to have access to effective HIV treatment can have a normal life expectancy – some 80% of those with a diagnosis can expect to live a healthy life with anti-retroviral drugs. However, the majority of people living with HIV are in the world’s poorest countries, with sub-Saharan Africa the most affected region, and for many, even adequate nutrition is likely to be a challenge.

HIV does not only impact individual health, it impacts on households, communities and the development and economic growth of nations – particularly those which already face the added difficulties of food insecurity and often poor public services and infrastructure.

Despite substantial scientific advances in the understanding of HIV, leading to significant improvements in prevention and treatment, there is still no cure and no vaccine.

World AIDS day gives us the opportunity to re-visit the facts of the disease. Despite scaremongering around transmission through kissing or touching, the truth is there are only three ways to contract HIV: unprotected sex (this accounts for 95% of all transmissions), sharing needles and mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding (which can be reduced to a very small risk if detected and managed).

Today is an opportunity to ensure we keep HIV and AIDS education, awareness and treatment on the agenda, both publicly and politically; to ensure vital fundraising is undertaken to enable research and to provide support for those people living with the disease locally and globally. It is also a time to show our solidarity with people living with HIV and AIDS, as well as remembering those who have died.