December 1 has been marked as the World AIDS Day every year since 1988, and it is supposed to be “an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from AIDS-related illness”.
The three decades over which this day has been observed have seen enormous success in the fight against HIV-AIDS. In the 1980s it was known mainly as the “mystery illness” which was wiping out large numbers of male homosexual communities in various world cities. At that time little was known about the illness and many people believed that as it was affecting mainly gay communities, it must be a sort of plague sent by God to punish “sinners” for their “wicked ways”. People in the mid-1980s used to quite seriously articulate this view.
Thankfully, medical professionals and researchers didn’t just settle for this moralising Sodom- and Gomorrah-type Biblical logic but instead ploughed ahead in their attempts to understand the illness and find a way to cure it.
The first thing was to clinically understand the illness and how it spread.
AIDS or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome was found to be caused by a virus — HIV or the human immunodeficiency virus — and it basically attacked and destroyed the human immune system. It was discovered to be transmitted in bodily fluids (saliva, blood, urine, semen and breast milk), and could enter the body through needles, cuts or sexual activity. Hence drug users and hospital patients were at particular risk because of the dangers of infected or reused needles.
It is estimated that more than 700,000 people with AIDS have died since the beginning of the epidemic — and that today there are over one million people living with HIV.
But the fight against the spread of this virus is one that has been largely successful and the common view is that humanity is winning the war against HIV/AIDS. However, neither we have been able to eradicate the disease nor have researchers been able to develop a cure of vaccine for it (although reportedly, this is not far away). But several things about the way this war has been fought are commendable — mainly the way in which the world united in its efforts to both understand and battle the virus.
One of the main factors improving outcomes in developing countries with high HIV/AIDS rates was the availability and affordability of generic HIV medications. Another was the international collaboration involved in spreading awareness of the disease and in efforts to control it. This is especially noteworthy considering how difficult it was to talk about a disease spread largely through sexual contact and needles. These were taboo subjects in not just traditional communities but even in western, urban ones so this was a pretty daunting challenge.
One of the greatest achievements of the late Princess Diana is often cited to be her role in destroying the myth of the ‘untouchability’ of AIDS patients. She had captured the world’s imagination after she burst onto the world celebrity stage following her engagement to the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, in 1981. The public adored the tall elegant, fashion conscious Royal and she quickly became the most photographed woman in the world.
Thus when she visited AIDS patients at a London hospital in 1987, the way she interacted with them was hugely influential. When Princess Diana shook the hand of an AIDS patient without wearing gloves, the whole world took note. When she sat and chatted with the patients without donning a surgical mask, it was a significant moment in the history of public attitudes towards the virus and those who suffered from it.
Princess Diana’s use of her celebrity status to change attitudes towards HIV was as remarkable as the dedication of doctors, researchers and public health professionals involved in this battle. The fight against HIV/AIDS continues but I do think that in the way it has been handled there is much that we can feel proud of.