Thirty years later, HIV is still here

It's now 30 years since the first reported case of AIDS. And despite sustained efforts to eradicate the disease there are still 7000 new HIV infections every day. In 1988 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared 1 December the first World AIDS Day. Its aim was, and remains, to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS issues, and particularly the need for support and understanding for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Since then, World AIDS Day has been established as one of the world’s most successful commemorative days. As the "red ribbon day" it is now recognised and observed by millions of people in more than 190 countries. And the day has also become an opportunity to highlight the need for continued development of education and prevention strategies.

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is primarily transmitted in blood, semen and vaginal fluids via unprotected sex or sharing injecting equipment. HIV belongs to a group of viruses called retroviruses known for the capacity to copy their genetic blueprint onto the genes of the host person’s cells. HIV has been identified as the virus that causes AIDS.

AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is not a single disease. It is a broad range of conditions that occur when a person’s immune system is seriously damaged after years of attack by the HIV. The terms HIV and AIDS are not interchangeable. It is important to remember that a person who is infected with HIV does not necessarily have AIDS. However, all people with AIDS have been infected with HIV.

The ability of HIV to live outside the body is very limited and, therefore, HIV is not particularly easy to transmit. It is a communicable disease, but it is not contagious like air-borne viruses such as influenza. HIV cannot be transmitted by hugging, shaking hands, coughing or sneezing. Nor can it be transmitted by sharing glasses, cups or utensils or by insect bite.

There are three main modes of HIV transmission: unprotected anal and vaginal sexual intercourse; sharing drug injecting equipment; and mother to child transmission during pregnancy, birth or breast feeding.

Exposure to HIV contaminated blood is another potential route of transmission. Injecting drug users who share needles and syringes are at risk of HIV infection because there is often a small amount of blood left in the syringe after injection. So there are definitely times when sharing is not always caring.

This type of exposure can also occur during skin piercing and tattooing procedures if equipment has not been properly sterilised after having previously being used on someone with HIV. Body piercing or tattooing should always be undertaken at licensed studios that use new inkpots for each procedure and disposable needles or an autoclave to sterilise equipment.

At the end of 2010 it was estimated that there were about 34 million people living with HIV worldwide, and although global rates of HIV infection have fallen dramatically, there were still around 2.7 million new HIV infections last year and about 1.8 million people died of AIDS related illnesses. Nevertheless, measures such as improved medical treatment prevented an estimated 700,000 deaths in 2010. Here in Australia, where transmission occurs primarily through sexual contact between men, the number of new cases of HIV infection diagnosed is now stable at around 1000 per year.

Wherever we live we can combat AIDS by “respect and protect”. By respecting and protecting ourselves and others we can stop the spread of the HIV and put an end to prejudice. Check out the World AIDS Day website at www.worldaidsday.org and two excellent Australian websites www.worldaidsdaynsw.org and www.worldaidsday.org.au

Or you can get more information about HIV and AIDS from High Wycombe Pharmacy. Call in and ask for the HIV/AIDS fact card.

Published by the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia and written by John Bell

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