Australia

World Aids Day: HIV 'epidemic' ongoing despite medical advances

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While many view the virus as an epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, almost 37 million people still live with the condition around world today.

Dai Aoki migrated from Japan to Australia 15 years ago. Not long after he arrived in the country, he found out he was HIV positive.

He says although he experienced discrimination as a result of his diagnosis, the perception around the virus has changed over time.

"When I was diagnosed, I actually couldn't understand English very well just because I just migrated here (Australia)," he said. "But now, I think there is not really discrimination anymore but there's still stigma around HIV."

If left untreated, HIV - or the Human Immunodeficiency Virus - attacks the body’s immune system and makes the body vulnerable to infections and medical conditions that it would normally be capable of controlling.

The disease may be transmitted when the bodily fluids of a person with HIV enters the body of a person without HIV.

In 2018, people who are HIV positive can take daily treatments to prevent the virus from advancing into AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which refers to the illnesses or symptoms as a result of the severely damaged immune system.

AIDS is the last stage of HIV and if left untreated, will lead to death.

Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations' spokesman James Gray said improvements in medicine have meant many who become HIV positive can still live healthy lives.

"It's really, really important that we're able to take those gains and ensure that no-one is left behind," he said.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, HIV became a worldwide epidemic with millions of people diagnosed and dying of the unknown virus.

The first cases reported were among gay men in the United States and for a period of time, doctors believed it was only a condition for gay males.

But cases soon emerged among women, children and heterosexual men.

Initial treatments for HIV became available to the public in 1987, although it had high rates of toxicity which cause unpleasant side effects.

Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations spokesman James Gray
Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations spokesman James Gray
SBS

It wasn't until 1995 when highly active antiretroviral treatment (HAART) became available that HIV and AIDS-related deaths declined.

Mr Gray said interest around the virus waned around this time.

"After effective treatments came out in around the mid-1990s, there was a period of time which people often reflect on as a period of silence around HIV where people weren't really talking about it anymore because people weren't dying," he said.

"It meant that for a lot of people, the idea of HIV that they had from the 1980s and early 90s kept on going and they weren't sort of up to date for what it mean to have HIV now or what HIV prevention meant these days," Mr Gray said.

World Aids Day on December 1 raises awareness about HIV and AIDS.

According to UNAIDS, there were 36.9 million people worldwide living with HIV and/or AIDS in 2017.

About 53 per cent of those people were from eastern and southern Africa, while 1.8 million are children.

Mr Gray said people's perceptions around HIV and AIDS needs to be challenged.

"When HIV had its biggest impact was around the same time that there was a lot of gay rights campaigns and decriminalisation, so there has been a linkage between the two," he said.

"But we also need to recognise that other people are affected."

"In fact, around the world about 50 per cent of people living with HIV are actually women and predominantly heterosexual women as well."

Dai Aoki said while it's great how far research and treatment has come, it is still important to remember those who have died and still die of the condition.

"World AIDS day is not actually celebrating anything, but more of a remembrance," he said

"It's about being aware of what's happened through history and where we are now."

Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations' James Gray said the fight to end HIV and AIDS for good is still not over.

"People with HIV achieved something really, really fantastic and changed the way that we do health and public health around the world by being leaders and driving the change," he said.

"We need to continue to reflect on and listen to people with HIV and those communities that are affected by HIV.

"They've shown tremendous leadership and by listening to that leadership, that's how we'll finally end the epidemic for good."

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