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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Thirty Years of Living With and Being Affected By HIV and AIDS

Who would have thought we would still be living with and affected by HIV and AIDS some 30 years after it was first reported? 


UNAIDS estimates that 34 million [30.9 million–36.9 million] people are living with HIV and nearly 30 million [25 million–33 million] people have died of AIDS-related causes since the first case of AIDS was reported on 5 June 1981. The agency has released a report, AIDS at 30 
The report found that in the third decade of the epidemic, people were starting to adopt safer sexual behaviors, reflecting the impact of HIV prevention and awareness efforts. However, there are still important gaps. Young men are more likely to be informed about HIV prevention than young women. Recent Demographic Health Surveys found that an estimated 74% of young men know that condoms are effective in preventing HIV infection, compared to just 49% of young women. 
In recent years, there has been significant progress in preventing new HIV infections among children as increasing numbers of pregnant women living with HIV have gained access to antiretroviral prophylaxis during pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding. The number of children newly infected with HIV in 2009 was 26% lower than in 2001.


In New York, world leaders have gathered (from 8–10 June 2011) for the 2011 UN General Assembly High Level Meeting on AIDS. I am sure they are discussing how the heck the world failed to get control of this disease. I am pretty sure no one thought that it would be this big, be around for so long, nor devastate as many lives as it has.






At the same time, the doom, gloom, fear, stigma and ignorance of the 80s and 90s left many unable to believe that people could still have quality of life and be HIV positive. Many who were working in public health back in 1981 would have little idea that people would be able to live for decades with the virus. I would say that in countries such as ours, being ostracised because of HIV is rare. AIDS is just too prevalent in our society for us to ignore it anymore.




We are ALL affected.




Certainly, discrimination still happens and you don't get open disclosure of sero-positive HIV status very often, but we have surely come a VERY long way in our knowledge and understanding of what it means to be living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. This is thanks in large part to our founding father Dr. Kenneth David Kaunda who took the brave and bold step of publicly accepting the reality of AIDS in his own family way back in 1989 and ensured that Zambia would take a leading role in successfully responding to the pandemic.


I first became an HIV activist in 1996, when I joined the Anti-AIDS club at college. I transferred to the University of Zambia in 1997 at the beginning of the abstinence movement. Back then, it was all about condoms. The abstinence crew were ridiculed and struggled to find funding outside of the church. Then, George Bush and the Mexico City Policy (or Gag Rule) came along and changed the landscape of the HIV response. Abstinence became all the rage and the ABC lost favour and began to fall out of fashion.


I remember the firm stance taken by former Heath Minister Brigadier General Dr Brian Chituwo who was instrumental in making clear that government policy supported all the ABC options.


Some years after the Gag Rule was re-introduced, George Bush came up with another idea; the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) committed USD5billion over five years to AIDS related projects.


I also recall the first efforts to ensure access to treatment for all and the subsequent struggle for attention to prevention efforts (in my view, the most important aspect of the HIV and AIDS response). The statistics tell us that there are more people who are not infected with HIV and we should be doing all we can to keep it that way. At the same time, it is encouraging that we now have options to ensure that people live longer and healthier lives and are able to contribute to a productive economy, to society and to culture. If anything, the zeal, determination, drive and motivation of PLWAs at many times adds up to much more than the lazy and dependent attitudes of the apparently healthy who contribute nothing to our country and only drain it of limited resources.


Over the years, I have noted how we have had to change our vocabulary. We have learnt to be more inclusive and less combative. We try to judge and condemn much less. However, you still see and hear the ignorant refer to AIDS patients, innocent victims and fighting AIDS.


An unfortunate development over the last 30 years has been the increasing number of children living with HIV. The sad reality is that because this disease does not affect Western countries to the same degree, the level of funding and interest in research will not bring about huge rewards as the people who need the drugs/cure cannot afford to pay premium prices.


CNN has done a great 30 year Timeline of AIDS that is very interesting.


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