HIV awareness: How far have we come?

As we hurtle towards World AIDS Day 2016 it is nothing short of incredible to look at how far we have come in terms of AIDS awareness.

With the first signs of a potential AIDS cure and a member of the Royal Family taking an HIV test live on social media, contracting the virus no longer means a death sentence.

But this year’s message in the World AIDS Campaign is that living with HIV still carries an enormous stigma. While many things are making a return from the 1980s and 1990s, HIV stigma is not retro – it’s just wrong.

So look out for the #HIVNotRetro message on social media on December 1.

AIDS - Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome - was first recognised as a medical condition in the USA in 1981. Later that year Dr Tony Pinching diagnosed the first case in the UK, in a heterosexual woman, at St Mary's Praed Street Clinic in London.

In the late 1980s, when many still feared HIV transmission came through casual contact, Princess Diana sat on the sickbed of a man with AIDS and held his hand.

She opened Britain's first AIDS ward at Middlesex Hospital, and the Government launched its HIV prevention campaign, dubbed "Don't Die of Ignorance".

Those dark days, when an HIV cure seemed an impossible dream, are long gone.

Fast forward to this year, and Prince Harry is carrying on his mother’s legacy by being tested for the HIV virus live on Facebook. The Terence Higgins Trust reported a five-fold increase in orders of a self-testing kit it piloted following the live stream in July, which got more than two million views.

With last week being European HIV Testing Week, the world’s fastest HIV self-test has now gone on sale in the UK.

AIDS has infected 78 million people and killed 35 million since it began in the 1980s.

But a report released by UNAIDS has revealed AIDS-related deaths has dropped by 45% to 1.1 million in 2015 from a peak of about 2 million in 2005, thanks to huge leaps forward in HIV treatment.

As more HIV-positive people live longer, the challenges of caring for them as they get older, of preventing the virus spreading and of reducing new infections are tough – despite drugs reducing virus levels to near zero and significantly reducing the risk of HIV transmission.

Executive director of UNAIDS Michael Sidibe said: "The progress we have made is remarkable, particularly around treatment, but it is also incredibly fragile.”

In 2015, there were 5.8 million people aged over 50 living with HIV - more than ever before. But the UN is aiming to have 30 million HIV positive people on treatment by 2020. So that number is likely to soar.

And in the not too distant future, the answer to the question “Can HIV be cured?” will be a resounding “Yes”.

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