UNDERGOING a short and simple medical test for HIV is not taboo — it saves lives.
This was the message of church leaders and campaigners worldwide on the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day, on Saturday.
Organisers encouraged people to take the finger-prick blood test — which gives results in 20 minutes — to help raise awareness of HIV/AIDS, and to break down the stigma which built up when the epidemic first broke in the 1980s. People were also encouraged to wear the red ribbon.
Among those to take the test over the weekend was Margaret Sentamu, who is married to the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu. Raising awareness of the importance of getting tested should happen all year round, she said. “There have been fantastic advances in medication which mean people can now live a completely normal life, particularly when they get an early diagnosis.”
This was a different picture from that in 1988, when World AIDS Day was established, the co-ordinator of HIV testing and prevention at World Health Organization, Dr Rachel Baggaley, said. “The outlook for people with HIV was grim.
“Antiretrovirals weren’t yet available; so, although we could offer treatment for opportunistic infections, there was no treatment for their HIV. It was a very sad and difficult time.”
Since the outbreak, more than 70 million people have acquired the infection, and about 35 million people have died, the WHO reports. Today, about 37 million people in the world live with HIV, of whom 22 million are undergoing treatment.
Mrs Sentamu, who tested negative at York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, recalled the devastating impact of the virus in her home country of Uganda, where both she and her husband lost family and friends to AIDS.
“It has taken a while for the message to get through to people that HIV is spread by having unprotected sex. Because of this, African women were, and are, particularly vulnerable to being infected with the virus. Understandably, people may be nervous about taking a test, but you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Late diagnosis can be devastating, so be brave and go forward — do not fear the test.”
DIOCESE OF YORKMargaret Sentamu is tested for HIV
The HIV epidemic is slowing in the UK, Dr Ian Fairley, Clinical Director for Sexual Health Services at the hospital, said. But nearly half of people who test positive are finding out “very late”, when the virus may already have caused permanent damage.
“There are more than 100,000 people living with HIV in the UK, and around a quarter of them don’t know they’re HIV positive,” he explained. “HIV is a treatable condition and no longer a terminal illness. Knowing whether you’re HIV positive is essential so that you can access specialist HIV services and HIV treatment.
“Effective HIV therapy not only keeps the individual well, but it also prevents them from passing the virus on to others. If someone with HIV is diagnosed early, and is able to access treatment, then their life expectancy is as good as if they were HIV negative.”
AIDS also affects children. Since the outbreak, five million up to the age of 14 have died from AIDS-related illnesses, 91 per cent of whom were from sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, one of the worst-affected countries for children, about 1.6 million people were living with HIV last year, including 110,000 children.
On World Children’s Day, last month, the World Council of Churches (WCC) held events around the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to address the needs of children living with HIV and TB, including free testing.
Eliminating AIDS is also one of the targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (3), which seeks to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”. The UN representative of the Anglican Communion, Jack Palmer-White, told ACNS this week: “While there has been significant progress made to increase the number of people who know their HIV status, more needs to be done to ensure that this is a reality for everyone.
“Churches can play a vital role in helping people understand why knowing their status is so important, and church leaders can be a positive example to their congregations by being tested themselves.”
The WCC has commissioned prayers, and a suggested order of service, for churches that wish to remember people who have died from HIV.