1 December constitutes World AIDS Day; a day put aside to bring awareness of HIV/AIDS to the world in hope to educate and highlight prevention. A red ribbon is worn in support of this occasion and has become instantaneously a recognisable symbol for this. Though I have to say, I do find such days rather disparaging. Not to say that I do not find them necessary, it is the fact I feel they are somewhat undersold. It is a case of thrusting the topic into the media for a day and then simply forgotten by the next.
My tone may seem negative but when you take into account we live in a developed country (UK) where education, protection, testing and treatment are in abundance, why is it that new incidences of HIV cases continue to soar, with 2010 having the largest number of cases recorded since 2001 in the UK? The UK is not alone in this growing trend as the same can be seen throughout Europe on various levels. This is what angers me, the fact that we live in a resourceful country and yet I still find people do not know even the basics when it comes to HIV/AIDS, such as what is the difference between the two (if there is one)?, Can you catch HIV through kissing? And other such myths which still exist today.
For those unaware, there is a difference between HIV and AIDS and no, you cannot catch HIV through kissing. That aside, HIV itself is a virus which attacks the immune system, more specifically; it infects T-cells which are a type of white blood cell. Here it can lay dormant for years, but when active it uses these cells as machinery to churn out more of the virus. It can be transferred from person to person via exchange of bodily fluids. Most commonly transmitted through blood and sexual secretions through activities such as needle sharing and sexual intercourse. Basic and brief as my explanation may seem, I would urge anyone to take a minute to look up a more in depth explanation of transmission routes rather than me bore you. AIDS on the other hand is now accepted to be the cumulative effects of the HIV virus. It is the point at which the immune system fails and the individual becomes prone to opportunistic infections. These are infections which ordinarily we would not be affected by, but due to a diminished immune system caused by HIV, these can flourish and lead to death.
As much of a doom and gloom scenario I may be painting, this would be far from the truth. It is days like World AIDS Day that we should flaunt what positive attributes have been achieved, and there are many. Although there is a marked increase of new HIV cases in the UK, recently it was reported that worldwide HIV incidence has been reduced by 21% since 1997, and 15% less since 2005. Remarkably 22 of the 33 countries where incidence has been reduced are in sub-Saharan Africa. More astonishingly is the fact people with HIV are living longer, there is a marked reduction in AIDS-related deaths of 21%. There are 34 million people in the world living with HIV today and it is the continued research and education of this disease that has made this possible. No longer is it deemed a life sentence, nor should it be viewed as curable, as there is no cure, but it is now a disease that is manageable to live with.
The main reason for the extended life expectancy of HIV cases is the improvement in antiretroviral drugs and combination of such drugs in treatment. Increase in accessibility to poorer countries where expensive treatments were difficult to attain has also had an impact with figures suggesting a 20% increase in antiretroviral coverage in sub-Saharan Africa alone. For me personally though, what is more compelling are the unconventional attempts to help reduce the spread of HIV. For instance, in Rwanda, they are tackling the transmission of HIV by circumcising heterosexual males. It is believed that circumcision can reduce transmission by up to 60%. The campaign itself started in December 2010 and they hope to have circumcised 2 million men by 2012. What is more interesting is the fact they have even dealt with reducing the expense of a costly procedure by the development of a new non-surgical circumcision method using a device known as PrePex. The reason why circumcision reduces transmission is because it is believed the foreskin allows for entrapment of the virus, providing a warm moist environment allowing the virus to live longer.
Another unconventional method which was recently in the news is the development of a "Self destructing syringe". The invention of the K1 syringe by Marc Koska has modified the standard syringe so that after one use it is defective, unable to be used again. The Tanzanian Government have already agreed to use these syringes as reuse of syringes is prevalent in countries like this. The World Health Organisation suggests 1.3 million people die each year due to the reuse of syringes.
There is a wealth of ideas and research going in to the prevention of HIV/AIDS especially in places like Africa. In Namibia for instance a 60% reduction in HIV cases was seen due to greater treatment access and increased condom use. Which brings me back to my initial point, why does incidence continue to grow in the UK? The only conclusion I see fit to answer this is ignorance. Today's society has become ignorant to HIV/AIDS and appears to consider it no longer a threat. That said, HIV is incurable, it has no preference, it will infect who it likes. It is our duty to re-educate, get tested regularly if you take risks, but most importantly, protect yourself; wear a condom. So on World AIDS Day, make yourself aware, wear the red ribbon, and do not play ignorant the next day.
Follow Mark Watson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/munky_chops