The history of HIV and AIDS paints a bitter tale of abuse and marginalization. The first known case of AIDS was reported in June 1981 and on the 1st December 1988 World AIDS Day took place for the first time. This day brought awareness to how AIDS affected families, children and youths. In 2021, UNAIDS highlighted the urgent need to end inequalities that drive AIDS around the world. Their mission statement: End Inequalities. End AIDS. End Pandemics.
Let's start from the beginning: what is HIV/AIDS? HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, it causes illness by wiping out the immune system. The immune system is the body’s arsenal against intruders. There are some cells of the immune system that eat foreign substances, others poke holes in them while some cells release toxic chemicals to destroy bacteria and viruses. CD4 T-lymphocytes are the coordinators of the orchestra of protection going on in your body. They work to alert the rest of the immune system of foreign intruders: this is why their destruction by HIV leads to such dire consequences. Once inside these CD4 cells, the virus becomes a part of the person’s DNA, can replicate itself and spread throughout the body. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome occurs when the CD4 cells count has dropped so low that the immune system no longer protects the individual leading to various illnesses such as opportunistic infections, skin cancers and nervous system dysfunction.
Since the 80s, strides have been taken to create treatments that work for those living with HIV/AIDs. Antiretroviral therapy aims to decrease the body’s viral load of HIV and restore the CD4 count. Most patients take this medication daily. In recent developments, a long acting injectable drug has been approved for use in the United States and England. With the right treatment, a person living with HIV can go on to live a fully productive life and have their own children. Antiretroviral drugs, when taken for 6 months, work to lower the viral load of an infected individual to a point where they are so low they cannot infect anyone else. They become undetectable. If a patient being treated for HIV takes their medication consistently as directed, they will not be able to infect anyone else. Undetectable is untransmittable.
The first AIDS patients presented with infections and tumors were abnormal and seemingly inexplicable. The symptoms were new to most medical professionals and so mass panic spread leading to poor treatment of infected people. Because the LGBTQIA+ population was so disproportionately affected, groups of lesbian women banded together to help their friends who were dying of AIDS, providing the friendly support they needed and donating blood when there were shortages.
Now that science has given us the tools needed to treat this formerly lethal virus, structural and systematic inequalities blocking access to life-saving treatment are the hurdles we are up against now.
New and transformative approaches to end AIDS will also protect the world against present and future pandemics. Leaders are now opening their eyes and work is being done at the policy level to reduce the inequalities that drive AIDS. On an individual level, we must end the stigma surrounding those infected with the virus so that people can access the treatments they need. A study by Thai researchers found that the main things that prevented a person from sharing their HIV status were fears of privacy breach, fear of rejection and communication difficulties. On the other hand, some benefits of disclosure include the increased capacity to cope with illness, seeking and finding supportive relationships, the ability to find an open space to share common experiences, and experiences of catharsis. Contraception is key. Barrier methods such as condoms and dental dams when used appropriately work to prevent the spread of HIV. Medical professionals should also inform their patients, and patients can empower themselves by asking their doctor’s questions and doing their own research.
Discrimination against people based upon their HIV status is illegal. Observation of human rights builds trust and helps nations tackle pandemics. People living with HIV should be able to live free of stigma, discrimination, abuse, ridicule and shame. Elevating essential workers and providing them with the resources and tools they need to provide quality care also enables medical professionals to thrive in their work environment. Community-led programmes and people centred infrastructure gets to the heart of the situation and ensures that the experiential experts, the patients also have a voice in the development of their health-care. Whether a person contracted the virus during the course of their life or they were born with it through vertical transmission, they are worthy of respect. A future without AIDS is possible. It’s up to us to build and live out that future together.