HIV/AIDS, a global epidemic that first hit in 1980s, has had scientific community at its wit’s end since then. Since its discovery, HIV/AIDS has claimed more than 35 million lives. In spite of years of research, the epidemic remains incurable. While the quest for effective cure or vaccine has remained elusive, advent of anti-retroviral therapy has significantly brought down mortality rates and improved the quality of life of HIV-positive people. Unfortunately, compared to the efforts in saving people living with HIV, efforts to end the stigma attached with it have met little success so far.
Institutionalization of World AIDS Day in 1988 was a major step towards ending the misconceptions that had come to be associated with HIV/AIDS. Since then, the objective of this day has been to raise awareness about the AIDS disease caused by the infection from HIV virus, to express solidarity with HIV positive people, and to mourn those who have died of the disease. The day is also a reminder to continue joint efforts to end the transmission of the HIV virus by educating people on HIV/AIDS prevention and control.
Several myths and misconceptions have contributed to the entrenchment of discrimination and bias against the HIV-positive people in the society. Earlier, it was believed that only male homosexuals and intravenous drug users contract this infection through sexual activity and needle sharing respectively. While the aforementioned misconceptions have subsided, some have stuck to this day. Even today, some people tend to avoid any kind of physical and social contact with HIV positive people. This is especially true for developing countries where ostracization and societal isolation is imposed on the affected individuals.
It should be noted that HIV is NOT transmitted by hugging, shaking hands, sharing toilets, sharing utensils with someone who is HIV-positive. The virus does NOT spread through saliva, tears, or sweat that is not mixed with the blood of an HIV-positive person. Also, HIV cannot be transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks, other blood-sucking insects or through the air. These fears are misplaced and have no scientific basis.
Years of efforts carried out by international agencies, government bodies, health organizations and NGOs in creating awareness have brought about a marked improvement in the treatment being meted out to HIV positive people. Nevertheless, undertones of discrimination and stigma towards these people continue to this day. HIV positive people find it impossible to get employment or those who are employed are reluctant to disclose their status to their employers for fears of being ejected. They are also refused accommodation and other services.
Discrimination and stigma are primarily responsible for low turn-out for HIV counseling and testing, identity crises, isolation, loneliness, and lack of interest in containing the disease among HIV positive people. The aforementioned factors perpetuate and comprise a vicious cycle that is detrimental to the efforts aimed at curbing this disease. According to World Health Organization, out of nearly 36.7 million people living with HIV, only 19.5 million people were accessing anti-retroviral therapy in 2016. The rest were simply out of the net, thereby, compromising their right to health and also, the fight against HIV/AIDS.
The theme of this year’s World AIDS Day “Right to Health” reflects on a very important fundamental right which is entitled to all of us, including people living HIV. World AIDS Day offers a chance to give impetus to international efforts aimed at creating awareness about HIV and providing quality healthcare to all. Ensuring Right to health is a first step in the direction of achieving Sustainable Development Goals, all of which are linked to health in some way. While it is a challenging task, but given humanity’s resilience and record in putting up a brave front to all kinds of adversities, the goal seems within reach.