The first official report on a series of rare and unusual illnesses causing death in young men was published by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on June 5, 1981. It was a little over a year and many more deaths later that it was finally described as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). It took scientists and researchers at least another two years to fully determine that AIDS was being caused by a retrovirus and to develop a blood test to diagnose it.
While much of the mystery surrounding the disease was yet to be deciphered in those early years, including causes of infection and transmission, people around the world were dying in droves. Because of the lack of information, there was a lot of scaremongering and the stigmatisation of people who showed visible signs of having AIDS swung into full gear all across the world. This was driven in large part by the early presumption that it only affected gay men.
Even after research proved otherwise, ignorance wrought by fear persisted, leading to discrimination against people with the disease. Shockingly and sadly, this was predominant in the health sector. Suddenly, sick people who presented with any of the unusual illnesses associated with AIDS were shunned and needed the assistance of activists to get medical treatment. Those who were mentally strong enough persevered, others were driven underground, forced to hide their condition and lie about it, which contributed to AIDS and its precursor the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) rising to pandemic levels.
It has been 36 years since that first official report was made about sick young men in Los Angeles, California and a lot more is known about HIV and AIDS. To date, there is no cure or preventative vaccine, despite the fact that billions of dollars have been spent on research to that end. Billions more have been spent on the development of medicines to counteract the ravages of the disease and there has been resounding success in this area. Nowadays, people who test positive for HIV rarely go on to contract AIDS in the short term. The antiretroviral therapy drugs that have been developed, allow most people to live long and productive lives.
One of the heartrending effects of HIV was that mothers who were infected could pass it on to their children during pregnancy, childbirth and afterwards through breastfeeding. Mother-to-child transmission is no longer a given. There are specific protocols, which, if strictly followed, prevent perinatal transmission of HIV. Several countries now stand on the pillar of having eliminated this form of transmission of the virus; this is cause for celebration and in fact six more Caribbean countries are getting ready to do just that.
Tomorrow, December 1, World AIDS Day will be observed globally under the theme ‘Right to Health’. It is a grim reminder that even in the face of all the strides made and the celebratory mood that will pervade Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat and St Kitts and Nevis, there is still need to call attention to the fact that good health is a human right which is universal and inalienable. It signals that sadly there is still need for activism for health care to be widely accessible to all and free of stigma and discrimination.
This is despite the fact that billions of dollars have been spent on HIV and AIDS sensitisation and education all around the world. The answer to the question as to why treatment has made such a resounding impact, prolonging life and enhancing its quality, while stigma and discrimination persist is people. It is this same human factor that is fuelling a rise in new HIV infections.
One would have thought that all of the information out there on how not to contract HIV and reports about people living with the disease still being stigmatised and discriminated against would have resulted in a decline. Well for a time, new infections did decline. However, it is now being reported that there was a rise in new infections last year.
The World Health Organisation registered alarm that in 2016 there were 160,000 new infections from among the 53 countries that make up its European division. Furthermore, it lamented that if the trend continues, achieving the target of ending the HIV epidemic by 2030, one of the Sustainable Development Goals, would not be realised.
It is not just in Europe. According to statistics, some 1.8 million people worldwide became newly infected with HIV last year. Closer to home, new infections in Latin America were estimated at 97,000, a figure which had remained unchanged for the past six years. Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, there were some 18,000 new infections.
These figures and the numbers the world over smack of complacency on the part of governments, but moreso we the people. It seems that we have forgotten or are failing to realise that it is up to all of us to end this epidemic. There is nothing but human failing preventing us from stamping out what is in fact a preventable disease. It’s on us to really secure a right to health as a legacy for posterity.