December 2013 by Winnie Ssanyu Sseruma
More than 35 million people have died from AIDS since it first began, almost 30 years ago, while today virtually the same number live with HIV.
The statistics that do exist are alarming enough, but figures are simply not available for the number of people affected indirectly by HIV – friends, carers, family members, lovers and spouses.
And nor do we know how many people are completely unaware that they carry the virus, or are simply too afraid to get tested.
HIV in the West
The level of ignorance is particularly marked in the West. By a bitter irony, in Sub Saharan Africa, knowledge about HIV transmission and adherence to treatment, for the few who are accessing it, is high.
Conversely, we in the developed world have access to free drugs and treatment, and yet our awareness about HIV is terrifyingly low, especially among the young people.
It’s as though we think we are immune - a very dangerous assumption to make, particularly in terms of inadvertently transmitting the virus to partners.
Fire in the blood: accessing HIV treatment
Today, globally, nearly 10 million people are able to access HIV treatment, but of course millions more need it but are unable to benefit. The history as to why so high a level of unmet need exists is the subject of a long-anticipated film Fire in the Blood .
Billed as an intricate tale of 'medicine, monopoly and malice', it tells the story of how Western pharmaceutical companies and governments aggressively blocked access to low-cost AIDS drugs for Africa and other parts of the global south after 1996 - causing 10 million or more unnecessary deaths - and the improbable group of people who decided to fight back.
Shot on four continents, and including contributions from eminent figures such as Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu, the film recounts how ordinary people - doctors, politicians and patients - became activists to make sure that people far and wide, especially the poor, were able to access antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to combat HIV.
I am proud to be involved in the HIV work that Christian Aid and our local partners in the countries where we work have done, and continue to do, through our SAVE approach.
Our work with faith leaders and communities has been transformational, but there is so much work left to do. We have to continue to advocate for:
the right of every single person to access HIV services and treatment,
the right to travel to any country they wish to without restrictions,
and the right to be treated no matter what their religion, race, immigration status or sexuality.
We can’t stop working on HIV until a cure materialises.
Living with HIV
Finally, as somebody who has been living with HIV for the last 25 years and accessing treatment, every World AIDS Day (December 1) I’m reminded of just how lucky I have been.
Thanks to the activism of ordinary people who have gone before us and those who are still alive, I am not just living but thriving.
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