World AIDS Day has taken place every December since 1988 – here’s why its 35th iteration is just as important.
Every year without fail on 1st December, people from all over the world come together to stand in solidarity with people living with HIV, and to pay their respects to those who have died from AIDS-related illness.
Founded in 1988 by James Bunn and Thomas Netter, World AIDS Day was the first ever internationally-observed day focused on people’s health. At the time, 1st December was decided upon as the optimal day for western media attention due to it falling between the US presidential election (won by George H. W. Bush) and the Christmas holidays, and it’s been held on the same day ever since.
Over the decades, the day has massively boosted public awareness of AIDS, with the likes of the President of the United States and the Pope making statements to kickstart discussions around AIDS and HIV every year.
Knowing the meanings of and the distinction between these two terms is key to understanding the goals of World AIDS Day. HIV stands for ‘human immunodeficiency virus’, and weakens the body’s ability to fight everyday infections and disease by damaging the cells in the immune system. AIDS, on the other hand, is the acronym for ‘acquired immune deficiency syndrome’, and describes a number of life-threatening infections and illnesses that can occur if your immune system has been compromised by HIV.
With an early diagnosis and effective treatments, most people with HIV will not develop any AIDS-related illnesses and can live a long, healthy and happy life. However, many people around the world still face social and economic barriers to treatment – something highlighted by healthcare inequalities during the pandemic – which is why the theme of this year’s World AIDS Day is ‘global solidarity and shared responsibility’.
This World AIDS Day, everyone from grassroots community activists to governments and faith leaders are being urged to join the fight to ensure that health systems are fully-financed, testing and treatment is made more accessible, human rights are respected and gender equality is recognised.
The United Nations aims to eliminate AIDS as a public health problem by 2030 by preventing HIV transmissions. The figure it’s using as a goal is ‘90-90-90’, which refers to making sure that:
- 90% of people living with HIV are diagnosed
- 90% of people who are diagnosed receive effective treatment
- 90% of people receiving treatment are unable to pass on the infection to others
People being treated for HIV whose levels of the virus are undetectable for at least six months are unable to pass the infection on.
HIV is not as easily transmitted as cold and flu viruses or Covid-19. Saliva, sweat and urine do not contain enough of the virus to infect someone, but semen, vaginal fluids, blood, breast milk and the lining inside the anus do. Therefore, most people diagnosed with HIV in the UK acquire the virus through unprotected vaginal or anal sex.
People who are at risk of contracting HIV include men who have sex with men, transgender women, sex workers, people who inject drugs, and anyone with a HIV-positive partner. In addition, Black heterosexual people and migrants to the UK may also both be at risk.
Symptoms of HIV may not appear for years after transmission, so the only way to find out if you have it is to get tested, which is a service provided to anyone free of charge on the NHS. If you discover you don’t have HIV, but are still at risk of contracting it, you could be eligible for a free prescription of pre-exposure HIV prophylaxis – or PrEP, for short – which is a small, blue tablet that protects from transmission.
Whether it’s by making the decision to get tested yourself, supporting a friend or helping to raise awareness more broadly, there are many ways to get involved on World AIDS Day. You can also make a donation online and stand in solidarity by wearing a red ribbon. Whatever you do, make it count.
By Jamie Morris