Thirty years after the first reported diagnoses of AIDS, Sarah Morrison of The Independent shows how the world has been dealing with a virus that is no longer a death sentence
Red balloons will be released, vigil candles lit and heads of state will recall those who have fallen victim to HIV/Aids on the 24th World Aids Day, to be held this week. Thirty years after the first reported diagnoses of Aids – then tantamount to a death sentence – one remarkable fact highlights the advances medicine has made: the number of people living with HIV has reached a record 34 million.
Thanks to antiretroviral drugs, which almost 50 per cent of people with the virus can now access, the number of Aids-related deaths around the world stands at 1.8 million a year – its lowest level since a peak in 2005, according to a recent UNAIDS report. While those who lived through the late 1980s and early 1990s in Britain will remember a rapid rise in Aids deaths, which largely affected gay men, injecting drug users and people who had received blood infusions, the fastest growing group of people with the disease in this country are now the over-50s.
But while HIV rates have fallen elsewhere, in the UK the number of diagnosed cases increased by more than 50 per cent between 2000 and 2009. There are now more than 90,000 people in Britain with HIV. In 2009 there were three times as many heterosexual people infected in the UK with HIV than in 2001, according to the Terrence Higgins Trust.
The Independent on Sunday met two HIV-positive people living contrasting lives in different parts of world.
Chris Williams, 47
Chris Williams tested positive for HIV three years ago during a routine check-up. He gave up his job as a personal trainer after his diagnosis and decided to study counselling, so that he can one day work in the public health sector. His infection was spotted early and he has yet to fall ill. He takes five pills a day; they are delivered free of charge to his door every six months.
“My experience of treatment has been very straightforward. I have a blood test twice a year. I see a doctor and he authorises the prescription of my drugs on the basis of the results. I’ve been very lucky and felt no side effects to my medication, except a little fatigue sometimes.
“At the beginning, I only told a few people, but gradually I have become more open about my status. Some people say I’m over-optimistic about the prognosis of my HIV, but I think in this country, there is no need for it to still be a killer disease.
“You can still go out and have a social life. Some people find it difficult to deal with psychologically, and there is still a lot of room for improvement, but it’s not all doom and gloom. When I do go, I hope it won’t be from HIV, but from old age.”
Hellen Njeri Ngugi, 40
Hellen Njeri Ngugi and her husband, also HIV-positive, live with their three children in a one-bedroom house in the Mathare Valley slums, sharing one latrine with 12 neighbours. When Mrs Ngugi was diagnosed with the disease 11 years ago, her husband refused to accept her condition at first. It took Mrs Ngugi two years to get the treatment that she needs, as the clinic was three hours away. Christian Aid has since given her counselling and support.
“When I found out I was HIV-positive, I thought it was the end of my life. People around showed me so much discrimination, including my parents. I could not share anything with them, including eating utensils and sleeping stuff.
“I used to work in a hotel, balancing the finances, but now my husband and I don’t have permanent jobs. Whenever he fell sick, he was sacked. I now make soap, but I can’t walk far, so I have to use my phone to look for customers. It is very difficult to raise money for the family.
“But, through counselling, I was encouraged. I have become a role model for others and was moved to another clinic, a 45-minute walk from my house. I now get my pills every three months.”
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