Once considered a death sentence, claiming more than 32 million lives since records began, there are now nearly 40 million people living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Increasing access to effective prevention, treatment and care, means that people who develop HIV are now able to live long and healthy lives.
Even with all these advances, a cloud of fear, prejudice and poor understanding still cast a shadow over individuals with HIV, reinforcing the importance of education and awareness days. 1st December 2019 was World AIDS Day, where organisations and individuals aim to raise awareness, knowledge and remove the stigma around HIV and AIDS.
HIV continues to be unwittingly spread in the 21st Century, with many people seeing HIV as a health issue of the past. The issue feels a lot closer to home here in London, where 34% of new cases in the UK are diagnosed. There are now, however, multiple drugs that are helping to reduce these numbers, allowing individuals with HIV and those at highest risk to live normal lives.
Some of the various ways that HIV CAN NOT be transmitted “Myths About HIV and AIDS” – Avert.org
HIV IS transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids with an infected individual, the most common of which is through sexual intercourse without a condom. Despite the misconceptions of many, heterosexual individuals are at an equally high risk of infection. In further contradiction to the stigma around the disease, HIV can also be transmitted without sexual intercourse, through sharing of needles or maternal inheritance during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.
HIV is VERY RARELY transmitted through oral sex and kissing and only in occasions where there is exchange of infected blood.
HIV is NOT transmitted through air, water, mosquitoes, saliva or touching.
With effective treatment, HIV may not be transmitted at all!
Treatments and Prevention
Antiretroviral medicines (ARVs) have been available since 1987, and work by reducing the amount of virus (or viral load) in the blood – allowing the immune system time to repair itself. By taking a daily dose of ARVs, individuals can keep their viral load at an undetectable level, which is now understood to mean that they can also not transmit the virus to others.
Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U)
Started by the Prevention Access Campaign, the slogan is intended to educate and remove the stigmas around transmission of HIV. U=U is based on scientific evidence that when the viral load in the blood of people with HIV is undetectable, they are unable to transmit the virus to others.
The most effective way to prevent the transmission of HIV is through the use of condoms during sex, but there are other methods that have been proven to significantly reduce and prevent the risk of infection.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is the daily use of ARVs by HIV-negative individuals (people who do not have HIV), to prevent infection from their HIV-positive sexual partner. Studies have shown that, if taken correctly, PrEP can be 100% effective. If an individual not taking PrEP is exposed to HIV, they can start a course of an ARV called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) within 72 hours to prevent infection.
Despite the availability of effective treatments and an ability to control the transmission of HIV, the wider public remain uneducated about these advances, leading to the retention of historical beliefs about the virus and those who carry it.
Rugby Union legend Gareth Thomas completing a 140.6-mile Ironman following his announcement that he has been living with HIV.
Misconceptions have been publicly challenged over the past couple of decades, with celebrities and sportsmen speaking about their experiences with HIV – from Charlie Sheen to Magic Johnson. One of the most high-profile cases in recent years in the UK has come from Rugby Union legend, Gareth Thomas, who revealed in September 2019 that he had been living with HIV, through a video titled “I’ve got HIV and it’s OK”. Thomas decided that he wanted to educate himself and others and tackle the stigma of carriers being ‘frail and sickly’, by completing a 140.6-mile Ironman challenge. Thomas’ willingness to communicate in the media around this, as a high-profile and well-respected sportsman, enabled wider attention to be brought to the virus, and physically demonstrate that HIV no longer needs to be a death sentence or a limitation.
Initiatives like World AIDS Day, and the efforts of those such as Gareth Thomas, will always be vital for raising awareness about HIV and tackling stigma. Communication is essential to remind everyone that people who develop HIV are now able to live long and healthy lives, without infecting others, in order to reduce the stigma associated with this condition.
Written by George Mitchell, Programme Executive