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WHO Experts on why HIV epidemic is not over

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Fear, stigma and ignorance. That is what defined the HIV epidemic that raged through the world in the 1980s, killing thousands of people who may only have had a few weeks or months from diagnosis to death – if they even managed to be diagnosed before they died.

“With no effective treatment available in the 1980s, there was little hope for those diagnosed with HIV, facing debilitating illness and certain death within years,” says Dr Gottfried Hirnschall, Director of the HIV department at WHO.

1 December 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day – a day created to raise awareness about HIV and the resulting AIDS epidemics. Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 70 million people have acquired the infection, and about 35 million people have died. Today, around 37 million worldwide live with HIV, of whom 22 million are on treatment.

When World AIDS Day was first established in 1988, the world looked very different to how it is today. Now, we have easily accessible testing, treatment, a range of prevention options, including pre-exposure prophylaxis of PrEP, and services that can reach vulnerable communities.

In the late 1980s, however, “the outlook for people with HIV was pretty grim,” says Dr Rachel Baggaley, coordinator of HIV testing and prevention at WHO. “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.”

With increasing awareness that AIDS was emerging as a global public health threat, the first International AIDS Conference was held in Atlanta in 1985.

“In those early days, with no treatment on the horizon, extraordinary prevention, care and awareness-raising efforts were mobilized by communities around the world – research programmes were accelerated, condom access was expanded, harm reduction programmes were established and support services reached out to those who were sick,” says Dr Andrew Ball, senior adviser on HIV at WHO.

WHO established the Special Programme on AIDS in February 1987, which was to become the Global Programme on AIDS (GPA) under the leadership of the charismatic Dr Jonathan Mann with the aim of driving research and country responses. In 1988, two WHO communications officers, Thomas Netter and James Bunn, put forward the idea of holding an annual World AIDS Day, with the aim of increasing HIV awareness, mobilising communities and advocating for action worldwide. This December is the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day, with the theme: “Know Your Status”.

It wasn’t until 1991 that the HIV movement was branded with the iconic red ribbon. At that time New York based artists from the Visual AIDS Artists’ Caucus created the symbol, choosing the colour for its “connection to blood and the idea of passion—not only anger, but love…” This was the very first disease-awareness ribbon, a concept that would later be adopted by many other health causes.

Scaling up treatment

The effort to develop effective treatment for HIV is remarkable in its speed and success. Clinical trials of antiretrovirals (ARVs) began in 1985 – the same year that the first HIV test was approved – and the first ARV was approved for use in 1987. However, a single drug was found to have only short-term benefits.  By 1995, ARVs were being prescribed in various combinations. A breakthrough in the HIV response was announced to the world at the 11th International AIDS Conference in Vancouver when the success of as “highly active antiretroviral treatment” (HAART) – a combination of three ARVs reported to reduce AIDS-related deaths by between 60% and 80%.

Effective treatment had arrived, and within weeks of the announcement, thousands of people with HIV had started HAART. However, not everybody would benefit from this life-saving innovation. Because of the high cost of ARVs, most low- and middle-income countries could not afford to provide treatment through their public programmes. Such inequities generated outrage in communities and demands for affordable drugs and public treatment programmes. Generic manufacturing of ARVs would only start in 2001 providing bulk, low-cost access to ARVs for highly affected countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where by 2000, HIV had become the leading cause of death.

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