To date the function of World AIDS Day and what it signifies has been an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, show their support for people living with HIV and to commemorate people who have died. This year WAD is celebrating its sweet 16, and to me it should be a circumspect celebration of man and life.
We have come a long way from the long shadow cast by the 80s ‘Grim Reaper’ prevention messaging, to the major scientific advancements in treatment and more comprehensive prevention options. Though antiretroviral treatment requires daily medication and frequent doctor visits and blood draws, it’s highly effective. People who start and continue treatment are 96% less likely to transmit it to others, and they’re less likely to get sick themselves because of improved immune function.
Despite this, there are still people who do not know the facts about how to protect themselves and others from HIV, and stigma and discrimination remain a reality for many people. According to estimates by the World Health Organistaion (WHO) and UNAIDS, 35 million people were living with HIV globally at the end of 2013. That same year, some 2.1 million people became newly infected, and 1.5 million died of Aids-related causes.
December 1 is clearly still very important as there is a vital need to raise money, increase awareness, fight prejudice and improve education.
Having said that, World AIDS Day is not a gay day. I once chuckled when I saw an old tannie wearing the ribbon with matching red earrings and lipstick. I couldn’t help wondering if she knew that it represented support and awareness for those living with HIV. She caught me out and wanted to know what was so funny. It turned out that her son is HIV-positive and she ended up teaching me a thing or two. I felt like a total dick. However, there are the ignorant ones among us who shy away from reality; the ones who simply refuse to have a discussion about the topic. I just email them a link to the online quiz (www.hivawarequiz.org.uk/quiz-3/about-you) and let them find out how HIV aware they are. They soon realise that it’s not just a gay thing. I get so frustrated when I hear people referring to an HIV-positive person as someone with Aids. Really?! A lot of people still don’t know the difference. This is the kind of thing we can teach people on World AIDS Day. Also facts like HIV-positive pregnant women who receive HIV meds don’t give birth to HIV-positive babies. How awesome is that?
We all do what we can to spread the word. I recently saw an interview on TV with Gert-Johan Coetzee, a very talented and innovative South African fashion designer, who helped create HIV awareness through his designs at SA Fashion Week. The patterns on his designs mirrored that of the HIV virus when magnified through a telescope. I was so inspired and beyond impressed.
There will always be something new to learn about HIV and Aids. I only found out about PrEP last week as opposed to PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis). PEP is taken within 72 hours after high risk exposure to HIV. PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) is taken beforehand as a preventative measure. Quite progressive, wouldn’t you say?
And what about HIV home testing kits? Is it irresponsible of me to think that by making these readily available more guys will get tested regularly? Sure, there is risk involved: institutions that usually do the testing provide counselling too. But it could also be part of the shame thing; guys don’t want to share their fears with a stranger; they want to find out for themselves. For instance, girls who fall pregnant buy home testing kits and they don’t get counselling. I don’t mean to sound reckless but the aim is to get tested regularly. A topic worth exploring.
I sometimes wish there were more days that took stock of the realities of HIV to promote awareness and education. We don’t have to wait for 1 December to get our red on, it should always be part of our consciousness.
Joe Lean is a contributing writer for Health4Men, a project of the Anova Health Institute NPC, funded by USAID through PEPFAR. This article represents the writer’s personal views.
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