Throughout the 80s and 90s, the AIDS epidemic dominated headlines making this one of the most feared diseases in living memory. In recent years, the word ‘epidemic’ is perhaps more quickly associated with emerging diseases like ebola and the zika virus. But while its progress has slowed AIDS has by no means gone away, and it’s worth reflecting on some facts this World AIDS Day.
1 – AIDS has caused over 7 million deaths since 2000
We tend to think of the 80s and 90s as the height of the AIDS pandemic. Since then, the incidence of AIDS has decreased and the life expectancy of HIV patients has increased, but the disease remains a serious threat to world health.
2 – There were 2.1 million new cases diagnosed in 2015
That’s a big number. By comparison, there were 29,000 reported cases of ebola between March 2014 and Jan 2016. Clearly, this is no time to become complacent about AIDS!
3 – The rate of infection is slowing
It’s not all bad news! Since 2010, the number of new cases has decreased by 6%. The huge public awareness campaigns of the late 20th Century have had a huge effect on slowing the spread – all the more reason why AIDS should still be on our minds and in our newspapers.
4 – Routine screening is ESSENTIAL
The first symptoms of the HIV virus are easily mistaken for a cold or ‘flu. After this patients can carry HIV/AIDS for many years without showing any symptoms. By the time patients feel ‘ill enough’ to get tested, it may be too late for meaningful help. Screening is confidential, widely available through your GP surgery or sexual health clinics. Increasingly, results can be returned within 1 day, and certain tests may not even require a blood sample.
5 – It is NOT spread through bodily contact
You cannot catch HIV by touching or kissing an infected person, or by sharing their cutlery, towels, clothes or living space. When AIDS was en emerging disease and not fully understood, myths and misconceptions like these heaped stigma and social isolation on top of patients’ suffering.
6 – Its origins are not fully known
AIDS was first observed in 1981 and named in 1982; however, it is believed that HIV might have originated in West African Primates, and may have been transmitted to humans as far back as the early 20th century.
Until very recently, a man named Gaetan Dugas was widely regarded as ‘patient zero’, responsible for introducing and spreading AIDS around North America in the early 80s. However, news broke in October 2016 that Dugas was one of many individuals with the same generation of the virus, and that circulation of AIDS in the US most likely began at least a decade earlier.
7 – The drugs DO work
There is currently no cure for AIDS, but antiretroviral drugs slow the progress of the virus and can give a near-normal life expectancy for HIV positive patients. Without treatment, the prognosis is around 11 years from the point of infection. With antiretroviral treatment, patients are generally expected to live into their 70s.
8 – PEP can help patients who have been exposed
PEP stands for ‘Post Exposure Prophylaxis’ – a course of drugs given to healthy individuals who have been exposed to the HIV virus – for example through unprotected sex, or a needlestick injury. It can also be given to the newborn babies of HIV positive mothers. If introduced within 72 hours of exposure, PEP is highly effective at preventing HIV from being contracted.
9 – PrEP can prevent transmission to healthy men and women
For someone who anticipates that they could be at risk of exposure, PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) is an effective way to prevent HIV transmission. PrEP involves healthy individuals taking a course of drugs which are normally used to treat HIV/AIDS. PrEP is not currently available on the NHS, but after a parliamentary debate, it was recently recommended that PrEP be made available to high-risk individuals, such as gay and bisexual men, or people whose partner is HIV positive.
10 – A vaccine could be next
Vaccinations have allowed us to combat polio, measles and rubella, and to globally eradicate smallpox. A vaccination against HIV is one of the Holy Grails of clinical research, and a huge clinical trial is about to begin in South Africa. 5400 healthy men and women will be testing a new injection, which it is hoped will prevent HIV in at least 50% of cases.
Since it was first classified in 1982, AIDs has gone from being a life sentence to an increasingly manageable condition, and the development of an effective vaccine could sound the death knell for this destructive virus.
None of these developments would have been possible without clinical research, and without volunteers like you, medical developments would grind to a halt.