What is World AIDS Day?
Reducing Stigma One Test at a Time
Today is World AIDS Day, a yearly day dedicated to HIV/AIDS celebrated across the globe. In its 33rd year, it was started in 1988 by two public information officers on AIDS at the World Health Organization (WHO) and worked to bring attention to the disease. Each year the day takes on a new theme to help bring more awareness, decrease stigma, and show support for the people living with HIV around the globe.
The first few years of the HIV epidemic came with findings that the virus can infect everyone and discriminates against no one, eerily reminiscent of our current pandemic. With no cure, no vaccines, and a highly-lethal virus – those with HIV and AIDS had little hope, facing devastating illnesses and inevitable death within a few years. While medical researchers have been able to stand on the backs of giants and develop vaccines for COVID-19, HIV has proven a trickier virus, capable of eluding treatment due to its nature and how it works. Check out our blog from November 25th to read more about how the virus infects the immune system.
The early days of HIV were not much different from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; there was misinformation, fear, and confusion around how the virus worked, where it came from, whom it could infect, and whether it could be treated. Unfortunately, this is also when the stigma started.
And while the world’s reaction, and sometimes actions, haven’t always been effective with HIV, we are continuously learning. Not only about how we could eventually treat and cure HIV, but also about how to fight against the stigma that has negatively impacted people living with HIV, especially across different demographics where the virus is more prevalent.
Where are we today with ending HIV?
While the world has collectively made significant progress towards ending HIV as a public health threat, we are not there yet.
In 2020, there were:
- 7 million people are estimated to have HIV
- 680,000 people died from HIV-related illnesses
- 5 million people were newly infected
- 73% of people living with HIV have received lifelong antiretroviral therapy (ART)
And while treatment has made continued advancements allowing individuals infected with HIV to live long and healthy lives, medicine is not without its side effects.
Unfortunately, even indirectly, COVID-19 has impacted global health. With the hospitals swamped and a shortage of beds and medical staff, HIV testing has decreased, leading to an increased risk of more infections, and missed diagnoses.
The UN set goals for 2020 of 90-90-90 (90% of those with HIV are tested, 90% of those who are positive receive treatment, and 90% of those on treatment achieve viral suppression.) And while the world did not quite accomplish those goals, Canada made excellent progress in reducing its infection rate and getting those who do test positive connected to care and treatment quickly.
However, the picture of HIV is not the same throughout the world, with some populations bearing an overshared portion of infections globally. We continue to see a vast difference according to region.
By region, the HIV prevalence rates are:
- Eastern and Southern Africa: 20.6 million people
- Asia and the Pacific: 5.8 million people
- Western and Central Africa: 4.7 million people
- Latin America: 2.1 million people
- The Caribbean: 320,000 people
- The Middle East and North Africa: 230,000 people
- Western and Central Europe and North America: 2.2 million people
As you can see, Africa, by far, has the most significant amount of people living with HIV. Of the 37.7 million estimated people infected globally, 25.3 million people are in Africa – that works out to over 67% of global infections.
Additionally, in western countries, those who suffer from social inequality are also disproportionately affected, showing higher infection rates due to increased risk of homelessness, lack of access to medical care, and exposure to crime.
These statistics and facts help showcase why this year’s theme is so relevant in beating HIV.
UNAIDS Global Strategy and Goals
To help eradicate the virus as a public health threat, UNAIDS has set new targets of 95-95-95 to help bring attention and accountability for countries to avoid the worst-case scenario of 7.7 million HIV-related deaths over the next decade.
These updated goals for the next eight years to 2030 are an update from the previous 90-90-90 goals.
This strategy aims to have:
- 95% of people living with HIV know their status
- 95% of people who know their status are receiving treatment
- 95% of people who are receiving treatment have a suppressed viral load so low that their immune system remains strong and their likelihood of transmitting HIV is significantly reduced
By achieving these goals, the major benefits are that by 2030, we will see:
- 21 million AIDS-related deaths are averted
- 9 million infections among children are averted
- 28 million HIV infections are averted
- And a 15-fold return on investment for HIV financial commitments
Why is World AIDS Day still necessary?
With increasing HIV infections due to disruptions during the pandemic over the past two years combined with a slowing public health response to HIV, it is more important than ever not to take our foot off the gas and that we remain dedicated to beating this deadly virus.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy to forget that another epidemic has raged through the world for decades. HIV is still a global public health threat. Today is a great day to start a conversation that brings awareness and support to those living with HIV to continue the work to eradicate stigma and discrimination. Adopting a human-centric approach that focuses on the rights of those living with HIV and the best interests of public health will help increase the awareness surrounding the virus, how it is transmitted, and the treatment options available. But most importantly, it will help reduce the stigma and support those living with the virus.
It’s Like a Circle
Without testing, there is no sure way to know your status. Without knowing your status, there is no way to know you are safe or that your partners are. Without this, there is no way to prevent HIV 100%. It’s like a circle; it’s all connected with no exceptions. But thankfully, testing is getting easier. When World AIDS Day started over thirty years ago, there was no rapid testing. You had to go to a sexual health clinic or arrange testing through your doctor to know your status. Now, in countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and South Africa, you can buy a self-test to take in the privacy and comfort of your own home. Rapid tests are safe, accurate, and accessible. While nothing can replace the knowledge and expertise of your doctor, rapid testing is a vital pillar in the fight to end the HIV epidemic.
And while there is no one or simple solution for HIV, testing remains an accessible, affordable, and accurate pillar, critical in helping reduce the transmission rate.
Quite frankly, hope. Because after over forty decades since HIV was first identified, people have continued to work on finding a solution for the incredibly tricky and nearly impossible-to-beat virus. It seems that today’s technology has finally caught up to the minds and vision of medical researchers, providing the world an increasingly positive chance at beating HIV and eliminating it as a global public health crisis.
Today, there are impressive advances in HIV research, such as the recent news of the first human trials for gene-editing therapy technology, CRISPR. Or the research based on “elite controllers” that show about 1% of the population naturally resistant to HIV may help lead the world to its first cure or vaccine.
And while sometimes it feels like COVID-19 has been here forever, HIV continues to impact families worldwide. And with the many groups and global regions overrepresented by the population with HIV infection, we must work together as an international community to eradicate the virus and the stigma associated. And with fewer voices in a large world with so many clamouring for attention, funding, and support, it can be easy to forget about a disease that has been part of the world narrative for so long.
While researchers and scientists work toward discovering a cure (and a vaccine), it is more important than ever to help end inequalities and AIDS. We believe that we can help not only reduce transmission but also help reduce stigma, one test at a time.