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The 34th World AIDS Day: “Achieving Equity to End HIV”

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By Somar Wijayadasa*

Last year, every two minutes, one person got infected with HIV, and every minute one person died of AIDS-related causes.

NEW YORK (IDN) — Every year on December 1, people throughout the world commemorate World AIDS Day to raise awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV infection.

The day is earmarked to educate people about the disease’s causes and early symptoms, to eliminate the stigma associated with it, to support those who are HIV positive, and pay tribute to those who lost their lives to the disease.

The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) believes that the far-reaching negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and other global crises, have depleted its limited resources, faltering the progress against the HIV/AIDS pandemic, thereby leaving millions of lives at risk.

Accordingly, the theme for this year’s World AIDS Day is “Putting Ourselves to the Test: Achieving Equity to End HIV”, and UNAIDS urges each of us to address the inequalities holding back progress in ending HIV/AIDS.

Four decades of unwavering efforts

In 1995, when there were around 23 million people living with HIV/AIDS, and when AIDS-related illnesses were the fourth-leading cause of deaths worldwide, and the leading cause of deaths in Africa, the United Nations created its first ever Joint UN Program (UNAIDS) to lead an ambitious program to inspire the world to achieve its shared vision of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths. 

Today, UNAIDS unites the efforts of 11 UN organizations—UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA, WHO, World Bank, WFP, UNODC, UNHCR, UN Women, and ILO,—and works closely with global and national partners towards ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2030.

According to available data, “Since the beginning of the epidemic, 84.2 million people have been infected with the HIV virus, and about 40.1 million people have died of HIV/AIDS”. 

“Globally, 38.4 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2021. Africa remains most severely affected, with nearly 1 in every 25 adults (3.4%) living with HIV and accounting for more than two-thirds of the people living with HIV worldwide”.

According to the UNAIDS Global AIDS Update 2022 “approximately 1.5 million new HIV infections occurred last year, i.e., every two minutes an adolescent girl or young woman was newly infected with HIV, and that the AIDS pandemic took a life every minute in 2021, with 650,000 AIDS-related deaths despite the availability of effective HIV treatment and tools to prevent, detect and treat opportunistic infections”.

Also, the new data revealed in its report are frightening: progress has been faltering, resources have been shrinking and inequalities have been widening.

It states that “Insufficient investment and action are putting all of us in danger: we face millions of AIDS-related deaths and millions of new HIV infections if we continue on our current trajectory”.

Four decades after HIV was first identified, and 26 years after UNAIDS was created to provide a concerted effort to eradicate the deadly virus, current data is somewhat encouraging but still far behind expectations.

Alarming increase in infections: Still a disappointment

Though only 1.5 million people became newly infected with HIV in 2021, we still have approximately 38.4million people living with HIV/AIDS. That is a high number of people living with HIV/AIDS – sadly far below UNAIDS’ and UN’s expectations.

According to UNAIDS, since 2015, HIV infections have now increased in 38 countries globally. And, on the bright side, “Countries as diverse as Italy, Lesotho, Viet Nam and Zimbabwe cut new HIV infections by more than 45% between 2015 and 2021”.

The report points out that every day, 4000 people—including 1100 young people (aged 15 to 24 years)—become infected with HIV. If current trends continue, 1.2 million people will be newly infected with HIV in 2025.

Approximately 85% of people with HIV globally knew their HIV status in 2021. The remaining 15% (about 5.9 million people) did not know they had HIV and still needed access to HIV testing services. 

Even in the United States, an estimated 1 in 7 people living with HIV in the US did not know they had it—regrettably the trend in almost all countries.

Though it is common knowledge that HIV testing is freely available in almost all countries and that it is an essential gateway to HIV prevention, and easy availability of effective antiretroviral therapies, many people prefer to live a carefree life—selfishly endangering the lives of others.

According to UNAIDS, over the past decade, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa and Latin America have all seen increases in annual HIV infections.

In Asia and the Pacific—the world’s most populous region—UNAIDS data reveals that new HIV infections are rising where they had been falling over the past 10 years. Malaysia and the Philippines are among the countries with rising epidemics among key populations.

Contrary to unflagging efforts by UNAIDS and its partners and all healthcare authorities, the UNAIDS data proves that HIV continues to spread in all nooks and corners of the world.

According to Ceylon Daily News (26/10), HIV rates have been rising even in my native Sri Lanka with a population of around 22 million. Since 1987, it had only 4,404 HIV/AIDS cases out of which about 1,000 people have died.

A recent report by Dr. Rasanjali Hettiarachchi, Director of Sri Lanka’s National STD and AIDS Control Program, revealed that 342 infected people have been reported this year. She estimates that about 3,700 HIV infected people need to obtain treatment, and that around 1,500 HIV infected people are in society without knowing that they are infected.

Saying that HIV infected individuals between 18 and 30 has doubled this year, Dr. Hettiarachchi made the startling revelation that among those infected are: 4 school children, 50 University students, and about 20 priests belonging to various faiths. Alarming indeed!

All educational establishments – from schools to Universities – should endeavor to enlighten youth of the risks they take in indulging in unprotected sexual activities.

As we have professed for 40 years, the major causes that led to the relentless spread of this disease from 1981 to date have mostly been due to people engaging in high risk behaviors such as: unprotected sex with multiple partners; gay men and other men having sex with men; drug addicts sharing used/contaminated needles; LGBT and female sex workers; and their clients and partners. 

The UNAIDS report reveals that “people who inject drugs have 35 times greater risk of acquiring HIV; female sex workers have 30 times greater risk of acquiring HIV; gay men and other men who have sex with men have 28 times greater risk of acquiring HIV; and transgender women have 14 times greater risk of acquiring HIV”.

With the multitude of results oriented actions UNAIDS has taken since its inception in 1995, we are now in an era where treatment and various options on HIV prevention can be made available and accessible to all—all over the world.

“We can end AIDS—if we end the inequalities perpetuating it. This World AIDS Day, we need everyone to get involved in sharing the message that we will all benefit when we tackle inequalities,” says UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima. “To keep everyone safe, to protect everyone’s health, we need to Equalize”. [IDN-InDepthNews — 27 November 2022]

* Somar Wijayadasa was a Faculty Member of the University of Sri Lanka (1967-1972), worked for IAEA and FAO (1973-1980), delegate of UNESCO to the UN General Assembly (1980-1995), and was the Director and Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000.






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