Fighting HIV/AIDS | Page 2 | Daily News

Fighting HIV/AIDS

AIDS/HIV (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome/Human Immunodeficiency Virus) caught everyone by surprise nearly three decades ago. Since then, 35 million people worldwide have succumbed to complications arising from AIDS and a further 75 million have become infected with HIV. In 2016, there were 36.7 million people living with HIV.

Today, on World AIDS Day, the world will focus on the progress made so far in the fight against AIDS and the steps that should be taken to eliminate the disease. There used to be a time when HIV/AIDS meant an automatic death sentence, but these days are gone now. Remarkable progress is being made on HIV treatment.

UNAIDS has launched a new report showing that access to treatment has risen significantly. In 2000, just 685,000 people living with HIV in mostly developed countries had access to antiretroviral therapy. By June 2017, around 20.9 million people all over the world had access to the life-saving medicines. But the battle is far from over. More than 1.8 million people became newly infected with HIV and one million people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2016 alone.

New infections among adults globally have not decreased sufficiently. The 2016 ‘United Nations Declaration on Ending AIDS’ target is to reduce new HIV infections to fewer than 500,000 by 2020. No single prevention method or approach can stop the HIV epidemic. Several methods and interventions have proved effective in reducing the risk of, and protecting against HIV infection including male and female condoms, the use of antiretroviral medicines as pre-exposure prophylaxis, voluntary male medical circumcision, behavioural change interventions to reduce the number of sexual partners, the use of clean needles and syringes, opiate substitution therapy and the treatment of people already living with HIV to reduce viral load and prevent onward transmission.

Thus access to HIV drugs and awareness campaigns on prevention are more important than ever. Everyone, regardless of who they are or where they live, has a right to health, which is also dependent on adequate sanitation and housing, nutritious food, healthy working conditions and access to justice.

The right to health is supported by, and linked to, a wider set of rights. Ending AIDS as a public health threat can only happen if these rights are placed at the centre of global health, so that quality health care is available and accessible for everyone and leaves no one behind. Accordingly, this year’s World AIDS Day campaign focuses on the right to health.

The “My Right to Health” campaign will provide information about the right to health and the impact it has on people’s lives. Almost all Sustainable Development Goals are linked to health and achieving the SDGs, which include ending the AIDS epidemic, will depend heavily on ensuring the right to health.

The right to health is firmly enshrined in our law, but even more importantly, it is deeply ingrained in the national psyche. Sri Lanka is one of the few developing countries that provide a completely free health care service. Sri Lanka has around 4,000 adults living with HIV. While there are no problems with their treatment per se, the bigger challenge is changing societal attitudes towards those living with HIV. There are still a lot of misconceptions about the disease in the wider society, which have not been effaced even after sustained media campaigns.

One prime example was the virtual expulsion of a student who had HIV from a school in the North Western Province. The parents of other students apparently did not want this child to remain in the school, for fear of the disease spreading among their offspring as well. This shows that the parents were completely in the dark about how this disease is transmitted. Every attempt should be made to educate the masses on the true nature of this disease and methods of transmission in order to end the social stigma faced by the victims. The only silver lining in this incident was that the student was admitted to a far bigger school whose teachers and parents had no qualms about having a student with HIV.

While today’s anti-HIV drugs can prolong the lives of patients to the point where at least some of them reach the full natural lifespan, scientists have not lost sight of the ultimate goal – a cure and a possible vaccine. A greater understanding of our bodies’ complex immune systems is essential in this quest since AIDS is a disease that essentially cripples one’s immunity to disease. HIV is very adept at evading the body’s immune responses. The main way it does this is by developing mutations that enable the virus not to be recognised by a person’s immune system. At the same time it continues to replicate and reproduce itself. Controlling the behaviour of this virus will be the key to any eventual cure or vaccine.

Judging by the progress made so far in the world of medicine, where certain diseases such as polio and smallpox have been eradicated from Earth, there is no doubt that scientists will achieve the same goal vis-à-vis AIDS/HIV. 


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