By Pearse McGrath
When thinking of AIDS, most will think of the epidemic of the 1980s. However, an estimated 38 million people worldwide still live with the disease which claims roughly 1 million lives every year.
World AIDS Day has taken place on the 1st of December every year since 1988, when it became the first ever global health day. It is an internationally recognised day dedicated to raising awareness about the virus, which is described by the UK’s National AIDS Trust as “an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness.”
The pandemic is one of the deadliest in history, with an estimated 37 million deaths being caused by AIDS related illnesses, despite only being first identified in 1984.
Today, major scientific advances have been made in the treatment for those who live with the disease, and there are laws to protect those with HIV and AIDS as well as a greater understanding of the disease by the general public. Despite this, people still do not possess the sufficient knowledge of how to protect themselves and others.
Stigma and discrimination also remain major problems for many people who have been diagnosed with the disease. For example, incidents of spitting are often reported. While these incidents cannot be condoned, reports can often be misleading. HIV cannot be transmitted through spitting. Other myths about HIV transmission that still exist include from insect or mosquito bites, from toilet seats, and from kissing. HIV cannot be transmitted in these ways.
Many may also still believe that a HIV diagnosis is terminal, but this is not the case. HIV is a treatable, chronic condition. The majority of people diagnosed with HIV in Ireland do not advance to an AIDS diagnosis, however death from AIDS related illnesses does still occur.
It is also important to make a distinction between the terms AIDS and HIV. HIV is the virus which can in some cases lead to an AIDS diagnosis. Ultimately, HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system and AIDS is a term that can only be used when HIV has caused severe damage to the immune system.
World AIDS day goes a long way to remind the public as well as governments that the disease has not gone away, and that there is still a vital need to raise money, increase awareness, fight prejudice and improve education.
A person who is HIV positive who wished to remain unnamed spoke to The City about some of their experiences living with HIV.
“There was definitely a lot of pain when I was first diagnosed, but in the 7 years since I’ve learned that life goes on and I’ve also learned how strong I am as a person. I’ve also met some great people and great friends through support groups. My doctors have been really nice but there’s no substitute for the lived experiences of other people living with HIV.”
They also had some words of advice for people who have been recently diagnosed with HIV.
“Most importantly, you should start treatment ASAP. Don’t be afraid to change doctor or pills if you feel like this could help. It’s also really easy to forget about other parts of your health, it’s important to remember you are more than HIV, and this includes your health.”
Some of the biggest problems they have faced include ignorance and the stigma around HIV and AIDS, “There are definitely some ignorant people out there who I’ve had bad interactions with it, but I just remind myself that these people are not worthy of my time.
I also felt obligated to tell everyone I knew about my diagnosis, but the longer I’ve lived with it I’ve realised that it’s nobody’s business but mine if I don’t want it to be.”
In Ireland, 444 people were diagnosed with HIV in 2020. Dublin AIDS Alliance Ltd was a voluntary organisation working to improve conditions for people living with or affected by HIV and AIDS, which is now known as HIV Ireland. HIV Ireland have set up Glow Red for World Aids Day which aims to shine a light on the impact of HIV-related stigma. All across Ireland buildings such as Dublin Castle and the Guinness Storehouse light up red beginning on the night of 30th November leading into World AIDS Day. The ultimate goal is to eliminate HIV-related stigma by 2030. HIV Ireland has also launched a new limited edition enamel pin to mark this year’s campaign – similar to a red ribbon or brooch which is worn globally to commemorate the day – all proceeds from the sale will go towards the organisation’s work to end HIV and HIV-related stigma. Further information and services are available at http://www.hivireland.ie.