It is 30 years since World Health Organization (WHO) declared December 1, as the World AIDS day, in 1988.
The day was established at the height of the AIDS crisis to create awareness around HIV/AIDS, promote potential cures, and remember lives lost. WHO emphasized the need for worldwide HIV/AIDS education, the free exchange of information and the protection of human rights and dignity.
In Uganda, the patients then not only suffered from the pains of the diseases but also stigma, isolation and other injustices. The sharing of knowledge and advancement in medical research relieved a great number of them of that pain. The medications have improved so much that you can get to the point now where, if one took the medication regularly, the virus in the body can become undetectable.
And when it is undetectable, then the risk of transmitting to another person is almost nil. Many people living with HIV have access to the medicine they need. Today with adequate drugs, people living with HIV can avoid getting AIDS. The virus is more manageable and patients are able to live relatively normal lives. But the advancement in treatment and availability of drugs (both preventive and otherwise) have presented other challenges to the country.
Whereas the stigma persists, the vigilance against HIV seems to be ebbing especially among the young people. Before, a positive test for HIV/AIDS would be treated like a death sentence; now, it is regarded like life imprisonment with a promise for parole.
The number of people living with HIV is going up, thanks to ARVs; that means there are less deaths, but young people are not concerned about having protected sex. The longer life expectancy has caused some people to lower the vigilance especially when it comes to prevention.
Truth is, the same vigilance that was deployed in the 1980s and 1990s ought to be strengthened as there is no cure yet. There is more to be done. The children in schools need to be educated about the pandemic.
At policy level, government should invest more in research. Whereas donors have played a crucial role in financing HIV/AIDS projects, government needs to own the projects wholly.
There is still a challenge with persistent drug stock-outs and with the lines of treatments. Only the first line of treatment is relatively available nationally at no cost. The second and third lines of treatments are only available at a few centres at costs that may not be afforded by many patients.
There is also a challenge of reinfection with another type of HIV; this is largely due to engaging in unprotected sex with another infected person. Therefore, as a country, we should not be complacent and lower our vigilance. HIV/AIDS is still real and dangerous. And our sometimes-reckless lifestyles may undo the progress we achieved in the last 30 years.
We don’t need to be comfortable with relief from advanced medications; we need to roll back HIV/AIDS. And yes, we can.