There is no doubt that we have made great strides in the battle against HIV/AIDS. The figures are staggering and are testament to the success of modern medical science, a strong collective approach and a deep commitment to ending a plague. As of June 2016, around 18 million people worldwide are on treatment according to UNAIDS . Additionally, in 2015 there were 36.7 million people worldwide living with HIV. Thus, we are seeing significantly less deaths from AIDS-related causes. It has, in many ways, morphed into a chronic and treatable disease as opposed to a killer virus.
However, the fight is not yet nearly won. The figures also reveal that in 2015 there were 2.1 million new infections. While there has been a decrease in newborns infected with HIV, there has been no drop in terms of adults infected since 2010. And the majority of these new infections are in females aged 15-24, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Key populations such as men who have sex with men, sex workers and drug users also continue to be at increased risk. A certain type of complacency has set in and it's time to acknowledge that this battle is far from over. We have all the tools to end AIDS, yet our use of those tools is still lacking in many instances. The continued stigma around HIV/AIDS also continues to undermine efforts for greater visibility, acceptance and increased access to testing and medication.
So what is it that we need to know about HIV/AIDS in 2016? There are a few important insights from medical science. While condoms are still an incredibly important part of the fight against new HIV infections, there are other critical ways that the spread of new infections can be limited. Studies show that HIV positive individuals on treatment with an undetectable viral load are very unlikely to pass the virus on even without condom use. Thus, knowing your status is essential. Early treatment is also incredibly important. Not only does it prolong life and leads to better health outcomes, it also means that there is less likelihood of passing the virus along. All the evidence points to the fact that if every HIV positive individual was on successful treatment, we would see a huge decline in new infections. The danger lies in those who are undiagnosed and may have high viral loads unwittingly infecting others. Getting tested regularly forms part of improving health outcomes for the individual while also limiting the spread of infection.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis or PReP refers to taking HIV medication while still HIV negative. This has been shown to decrease the chances of contracting the virus if you do come into contact with it through sexual contact. It is an essential strategy for preventing new infections, especially among high risk individuals and in key populations.
These are just some of the important findings that are helping to decrease the number of new infections. There are also other equally important ways to continue fighting HIV: harm reduction strategies such as needle and syringe programmes for injecting drug users as well as education aimed at young girls and women that empower them to make healthier choices. Removing judgment and stigma from the epidemic also remains one of the most challenging aspects of dealing with HIV infection. Too often, HIV positive individuals were seen as 'lost' to the epidemic and 'failures' in terms of prevention campaigns. This can no longer be the case; HIV positive people are central proponents in the fight against HIV/AIDS and their voices and first-hand accounts offer the most valuable sources of information of where to focus efforts.
As the numbers show, complacency can be dangerous. If unchecked, the epidemic may re-surface and will affect the most vulnerable individuals in society. As a Youth Stop AIDS campaigner, our main message is that It Ain't Over. We have come so far, but still have so far to go.