Every year the world comes together on December 1 to commemorate the lives lost and those affected by the world’s longest-running epidemic.
On World AIDS Day, the United Nations remembers those who have died of AIDS-related illnesses, supports people living with HIV (PLHIV), celebrates achievements in the space of HIV/AIDS, raises awareness and unites to combat the virus.
Forty long years have gone by and yet there seems no respite in sight. HIV/AIDS remains a global crisis. So, as we enter the 5th decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we ask ourselves “Why is it so difficult to fight this virus?”
Globally, we have seen a lot of engagement and advancement in the HIV response, yet in India, we are still lagging in manifold ways.
According to UNAIDS, though there was a 54% decline in new HIV infections since 1996, an estimated 1.5 million individuals have acquired HIV in the year 2021.
“According to the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO), India was estimated to have around 62,970 new HIV infections in 2021, with 15,000 new infections among young people (15-24 years). Though the decline is huge, the infections recorded in 2021 are alarming! The numbers in Goa are even higher, given the area and population, at 196 new infections in 2022. This indicates that there is still a lack of awareness and a gap of knowledge,” says Celina Menezes, an activist for PLHIV.
Ever since the introduction of and access to free anti-retroviral therapy, we can see the first generation of epidemic survivors who are growing up and growing old. The prospect of an increased lifespan gives them hope and raises their spirits to dream like any other individual.
But the challenges pertaining to health, education, social life, employment and so on, continue.
“While adolescents and young people who are positive face hurdles of growing up with the virus, adults, on the other hand, face issues ageing with it. Although HIV has gained the status of a manageable chronic illness, mental health is a rising concern among PLHIV. PLHIV hesitate to seek support, fearing that the disclosure of their status will expose them to ostracisation in society and a life of difficulty,” says Pranab Barui, the lead for psychosocial well-being.
Science has advanced in the area of combatting HIV. There is the use of drugs like Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), which can be administered to individuals who are at a high risk of acquiring HIV, and Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), which is often used in medical settings, especially in cases of rape. PrEP has fairly recently come to India.
Awareness, availability and easy access to prevention methods, including comprehensive sexuality education, are the need of the hour to decrease the number of new infections, especially among young people.
Greater availability of self-testing kits needs to be considered among the general public. Laws and policies protecting the rights of PLHIV need to be rectified. Fast forward to 5 years, and we see that the HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 2017 is still not notified in the state.
“With this year’s theme ‘Equalize’ for World AIDS Day, there is an urgent need to end the inequalities and discrimination that further cause AIDS and other pandemics to thrive around the world. The theme is a call to everyone to join hands, vocalise and act on in the HIV response to end AIDS by 2030,” says Applesta, the head of operations at the Human Touch Foundation.
It is, thus, necessary to educate people about HIV, express solidarity with people living with the virus, encourage testing, demand care and treatment services and promote better healthcare systems.
This will bring us closer to the UNAIDs 90-90-90 global HIV target to help end the epidemic.
The Human Touch Foundation has been catering to the unmet needs of adolescents and young people living with HIV (A&YPLHIV) while engaging in a comprehensive and sustained approach through a community-based model, addressing barriers that these people face when coping with HIV.
Since they are at a higher risk of developing mental health issues associated with HIV, the organisation, through psychosocial support, also provides a safe space for young people living with HIV to express their concerns, build resilience and achieve an optimum level of well-being.