Today is World AIDS Day but isn’t it time this was defunct? Not the day, but the acronym AIDS.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It is the terminology given to someone who has HIV (usually untreated) which has weakened the immune system to the point that when the patient acquires a secondary illness (like pneumonia) the body isn’t strong enough to fight it off, leading to death or a terminal condition. This is the only time AIDS can be used correctly. Someone living with HIV does not have AIDS – AIDS isn’t something you can catch, you can’t pass it on and it can’t kill you. AIDS isn’t a virus or bacteria, it is simply the terminology given to a patient in the latter stages of HIV.
This may sound like merely semantics – AIDS or HIV, what’s the difference? There is a huge difference and perhaps if more people knew that, there wouldn’t be so much fear and stigma attached to HIV.
The reason today is called World AIDS Day stems back to the 1980s when the virus was first discovered. Although it is now widely believed HIV originated in Africa over 100 years ago, it was only first recorded in the United States 34 years ago. The most common theory is the hunting of HIV infected chimpanzees in Congo crossed species to humans either from eating the animals or their blood getting into cuts and wounds. Researchers have pinpointed this to be around 1920 but HIV as we know it wasn’t first named until gay men started dying in 1981/82. By then it could have already spread to five continents (North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Australia) with up to 300,000 people being infected.
It is unfortunate that the first cases of HIV/AIDS were in gay men. If the above information is correct, hundreds of thousands of people would have already been carrying the virus and stands to reason that most would not have been gay, but this incident tarnished an already fragile relationship between gay men and the rest of the world. In June 1982 the virus was originally called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) and the term gay disease was born and is regrettably still prevalent today.
As there was no treatment or knowledge of this illness in the early 80s, many people were dying soon after diagnosis. In September the same year the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention used the acronym AIDS for the first time. They described it as “a disease at least moderately predictive of a defect in cell mediated immunity, occurring in a person with no known case for diminished resistance to that disease.”
AIDS was spreading with reports coming in from Europe and Africa and specific organisations were being set up in the US and UK to provide safer sex advice to gay men. It wasn’t until 1983 that AIDS was also reported in heterosexual couples suggesting it could be passed on by anyone.
In May 1986 the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses named the virus that causes AIDS as HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). Two years later in 1988, the World Health Organisation declared 1 December to be the first World AIDS day.
27 years later, we still call it World AIDS Day when it should be World HIV Day. We have made incredible advances in medication; we know so much more about the virus now and are closer than ever at finding a cure/vaccine. For those with access to antiretroviral therapy, there are very few HIV related deaths and therefore AIDS is a term rarely used in developed countries.
Lack of information, education and fear are still driving stigma and misconceptions. The truth is everyone who has sex without protection is susceptible to HIV. It is not a gay disease, it is a virus transmitted from human to human through sex and blood (sharing needles). It dies in oxygen (within 10-15 seconds) so cannot be transmitted through kissing, on toilet seats and is unlikely to be passed on through oral sex. 16% of people recently surveyed by the National AIDS Trust believed HIV could be transmitted by kissing. This is an increase from the 4% of people interviewed 10 years ago.
It is all too easy to pretend that we are immune from the effects of HIV. Why would we read up and research something we don’t have? But if we have unprotected sex we should know the risks and the facts. What happens when you meet someone you like but find out they have HIV? Are you at risk? Should you date them? Should you sleep with them? If they are positive and on antiretroviral therapy there is little cause for alarm. AIDSMAP published the results of a two year study between 767 couples, one partner with HIV on medication and the other negative. No one with an undetectable viral load transmitted the virus to their partner. The study will continue until 2017.
By the mid-1980s it was common knowledge that HIV could infect anyone, man or woman. Television adverts were produced to inform the public in powerful and terrifying ways. The UK had a gravestone being etched with the word AIDS and in Australia they had groups of people being taken by Grim Reapers. There was some controversy over Australia’s advert as people believed the Grim Reapers represented gay men who were now spreading their disease with the rest of the world.
Due to the media showing the world the first images of those affected in the early 80s, AIDS still congers up visions of frail, deathly looking people with mere hours to live. Hospital beds lined will people taking their last breath and medical staff walking around with masks on not wanting to tend to their patients for fear of being infected. We need to move away from these images and disconnect AIDS from HIV. HIV is a virus, AIDS is a syndrome. People are now living healthy, normal lives with HIV. The medication is in some cases just one pill a day and there is talk of a possible injection that could be administered just once a month in the near future.
Fewer than half of the 36.9 million people affected with HIV have access to antiretroviral therapy worldwide. There were 1.2 million deaths from HIV-related cases by the end of 2014 which has fallen by 42% in the past ten years. But there could be no HIV-related deaths if the medication was available to everyone. For most of the 15.8 million people currently on antiretroviral therapy, HIV is no longer a death sentence. The biggest problem we have now is lack of knowledge and education. Know your status, know the risks and know the truth.
If you don’t like or can’t use condoms, PrEP is available in some parts of the world and with France recently legalising the HIV protection drug, hopefully it will be coming to the UK soon. Take a look at my previous article about PrEP.
Last year there were 613 deaths associated with HIV just in the UK. This number could be dramatically reduced by everyone testing and knowing their status. When on medication, most people live a full and relatively healthy life. Ignorance will not stop HIV.