Andree lived in Paris, cut off from her family and friends who refused to support her. She was lost and scared, and died a lonely death in a hospice. Larissa, from Kaliningrad, was also rejected by her loved ones. Although still alive, her existence is one of loneliness and discrimination. Both of these are stories of the stigma faced by people infected with HIV/AIDS. Both are stories of people’s lives being destroyed by a lack of compassion. But Andree’s story is set in 1986; Larissa’s is from earlier this year.
Between these two lies a period of amazing scientific and medical advancement. Although there is still no known cure, treatment has advanced to the point where antiretroviral drugs can be used to slow down the disease and lessen its effects. Where it was once a terminal illness, HIV/AIDS is now considered a chronic one – still extremely dangerous, but no longer the death sentence it used to be in the 80’s and early 90’s. Arguably the greatest success of the last decade has been the provision of antiretroviral treatment to 10 million people in developing countries. This includes 60% of people in need of treatment in Africa, a number that would have seemed unthinkable even at the turn of the millennium.
Another major milestone has been the increased awareness about the condition. For years, the assumption, both among the laypersons and the medical experts, was that HIV and AIDS were the same thing. However, improved research and awareness campaigns have led to more and more people realising the differences between the two, and that HIV does not necessarily lead to AIDS. This, of course, ties back in to better medical approaches as the nuances of the condition (the one being a virus, the other being a disease) have led to a better understanding of preventive measures and treatment. Combined with the dispelling of myths such as HIV/AIDS being contagious through simple physical contact, this has meant that we are in a better situation now than when World AIDS Day was first commemorated in 1988.
So why then are stories like Larissa’s still so prevalent? The answer is depressingly simple – while the stigma of being infected has reduced, the stigma of the reasons behind infection is still very much present. People who represent the two groups most at risk of infection are the ones who are treated with the most contempt. Those who self-inject drugs, like Andree and Larissa, make up one of these groups. The other consists of those who engage in same-sex intercourse, particularly men. It is not a surprise to learn that society does not look particularly favourably on either of these. Yet, these are the very people who need the most attention and the most support.
The success of tackling HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa can be primarily attributed to the extraordinary advocacy from civil society activists from across the world. Political leadership provided a rare undivided front, to help those in need get another shot at life. The problem now, of course, is that the strands of society that remain at risk are those that rights groups (particularly in Asia and Africa) and political leaders are not as willing to unite behind.
The strongest message behind the awareness campaigns that helped eradicate the prejudice and the disgust felt towards HIV/AIDS patients was that of sameness, that those who suffer from the condition are no different from those who don’t except a tragic set of medical circumstances. That same message needs to be employed now on a different level. The self-injected drug users, the ones who practice unprotected sex, the ones who engage in same-sex relationships – they are NOT ANY DIFFERENT FROM YOU AND ME. Their lives might represent a different path to yours, whether it is through some of their choices or through their natural inclinations, but that is no reason to treat them any differently. It is certainly no reason to prevent them from getting treated at all.
So, on this, the 25th anniversary of the foundation of World AIDS Day, I ask anyone who comes across this entry to continue spreading awareness. Two and half decades ago, the thought of HIV/AIDS becoming a containable condition was unheard of. Today, that impossibility is getting closer to becoming a reality, but that can only happen if we fight our intolerance and no longer treat others as less than human.