This World AIDS Day, remember HIV hasn’t gone away

By Chris Williams, updated 1 year ago in Health / Sexual health

smiling man with blue overlay holding red HIV awareness ribbon for World AIDS Day

World AIDS Day is held on December 1 each year. This year’s theme in Australia is ‘Now More Than Ever‘. It encourages people to educate themselves and others about HIV, to take action to prevent the spread of the virus, and to ensure that people living with HIV can participate fully in the life of the community, free from stigma and discrimination.

2020’s been a challenging year for everyone. While COVID-19 has dominated much of the attention, HIV and AIDS haven’t gone away.

Organisations born out of Australia’s HIV/AIDS epidemic found themselves in the unprecedented position of advising communities to stop having casual sex. Many same-sex attracted men are well accustomed to sexual safety messaging, which often celebrates sex and sexuality. Nevertheless, this was the first time people were asked to stop hooking up altogether.

Despite almost 40 years of knowledge, systems and tools to help prevent the spread of HIV, we’ve had to rely on using hygiene, masks, physical distancing and self-isolation for preventing the spread of COVID-19 instead. But just like the HIV/AIDS epidemic, communities rose to the challenge to protect themselves and each other.

“Living through HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 has taught us to remain vigilant about protecting our health. And it’s also taught us that tremendous change is possible when we all work together.”

A study from the Kirby Institute found that gay and bisexual men in Australia dramatically changed their behaviours during COVID-19. Researchers identified an 84 per cent drop in casual sex following the introduction of physical distancing measures.

Commending the community’s response

With these physical distancing measures in place, the drop in casual sex has been great for stopping the spread of COVID-19.

In a Star Observer article, ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill said: “…the way communities, including gay and bisexual men, have adapted to change has been nothing short of amazing. Because of this collective action, we have seen COVID-19 infections decline significantly in Australia…”

What’s yet to be seen is whether there’s been a decline in HIV cases too. Sex didn’t stop altogether during this new pandemic and restrictions have impacted routine sexual health testing and PrEP usage.

A time for reflection and action

Now more than ever, this World AIDS Day is an opportunity to reflect on the past as well as how far we’ve come in almost 40 years.

It’s a day to commemorate those we’ve lost and a reminder to support all people living with HIV. Many have offered their time and their bodies to scientific research. As a result, millions of people around the world are able to benefit from remarkable advances in biomedical HIV prevention and treatment.

HIV by numbers: towards zero | Emen8

In keeping with this year’s theme for World AIDS Day, now is the time to take action. If it’s been more than three months since your last sexual health test, book in with a doctor or sexual health centre for a check-up.

Remember, with incredible scientific advances, HIV isn’t what it used to be. Getting tested and knowing your status puts you in control of your long-term health. You can find testing services near you with our interactive map.

And if you didn’t know, starting HIV treatment as soon as possible after diagnosis helps safeguard someone’s health and prevents onward transmission of the virus, halting the spread of HIV in its tracks.

“Remember, with incredible scientific advances, HIV isn’t what it used to be.”

For anyone who’s stopped using PrEP or is thinking about using it, now’s the time to get back on it or see a doctor about starting. There are different ways to use PrEP that offer increased convenience and the confidence of knowing you’re protected against HIV.

Supporting the science

Advances in the ways we prevent and manage HIV have taken years of dedicated scientific research in response to a global health challenge.

Perhaps one of the key lessons to emerge from the HIV/AIDS epidemic and reinforced by the COVID-19 pandemic is to trust the science and the robust processes that deliver reliable results.

It’s this scientific approach that’s enabled the Australasian Society for HIV, Viral Hepatitis and Sexual Health Medicine (ASHM) to release updated guidance for healthcare providers about the ‘U=U’ message, otherwise known as Undetectable=Untransmittable.

The message is simple and indisputable: maintaining an undetectable viral load eliminates the risk of sexual transmission of HIV. And it makes Australia the first country in the world to adopt a national framework that unequivocally supports the science behind the ‘U=U’ message.

Undetectable = Safe | Emen8

Positive perspectives

The value of the ‘U=U’ message cannot be underestimated. It breaks down long-held beliefs that people living with HIV are somehow dangerous. In an interview with DNA Magazine, three guys share their stories about living with HIV.

Steve Spencer offers a perspective on what makes a good ally: “Good allies listen, learn and, once they’re confident enough with that information, use it to educate and support others. People are very receptive to learn new information about HIV. Their faces light up when you tell them how incredible U=U is and they’re genuinely thankful to be taught about it. It’s heartening to see negative people show support and love for positive people,”

Over in New Zealand, Charlie Tredway sensed a shift in attitudes towards people living with HIV, saying: “It felt like there was a bit of a paradigm shift in the community or that people living with HIV could do anything that their HIV-negative counterparts could, and that having HIV didn’t make someone dangerous, unworthy of consideration or unable to have a life of dignity and respect,”

Today and into the future

Living through HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 has taught us to remain vigilant about protecting our health. And it’s also taught us that tremendous change is possible when we all work together.

“It’s heartening to see negative people show support and love for positive people,”

This World AIDS Day, let’s look towards a future where HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 no longer impact the ways we live and the ways we connect. Perhaps then, we can look back and feel proud knowing we did our bit to protect each other and ourselves.

Show your support for people living with HIV on World AIDS Day by wearing a red ribbon, the international symbol of HIV awareness and support.