Commemorating World AIDS Day

By Laura Fredrickson, HIV/AIDS coordinator at Marquette County Health Department

World AIDS Day was initiated by health ministers from around the world who called for a spirit of social tolerance and a greater awareness of HIV/AIDS on an international scale. It was first observed in 1988, and was the first ever global health day.

World AIDS Day takes place every year on December 1. This year the theme is “Increasing Impact through Transparency, Accountability, and Partnerships.” It continues 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 an AIDS-related illness.

World AIDS Day has been recognized for the past 29 years and some people may wonder why it is still important. In the United States, we don’t seem to hear about HIV/AIDS as much anymore. Fewer people are dying. Excellent care and treatment options are available and HIV is now considered a chronic disease instead of terminal illness. So why is World AIDS Day still important?

World AIDS Day is important because it reminds the public and government that HIV has not gone away. There is still a vital need to raise money, increase awareness, fight prejudice and improve education.

Although the number of new HIV diagnoses in the United States has declined in recent years, HIV is still having a large impact. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 1 million people in the United States are living with HIV, and 1 in 7 doesn’t know it.

A major barrier to prevention efforts continues to be HIV/AIDS related stigma. It has been 36 years since the start of the HIV epidemic. Sadly, even after 36 years there is still misinformation, prejudice and fear. People living with HIV are still denied medical care, are told they can’t use the regular dishes at family dinners, and know they could be charged with a felony for not disclosing HIV status. Fear of HIV related stigma impacts one of the best prevention tools we have – HIV testing. HIV testing is a powerful prevention tool because if people know their HIV status, they can get into care and treatment to keep themselves healthy and their viral load measurement low. The Centers for Disease Control recently confirmed that people who take HIV medication regularly as prescribed and achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load have effectively no risk of sexually transmitting the virus to a HIV-negative partner. But fear of negative social consequences of a positive HIV test result can deter many from getting tested. There are multiple ways to prevent HIV transmission, such as using condoms and taking medicine as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), but there are still too many people living with HIV who don’t know it. There are too many people transmitting the virus to others without knowing it. As we prepare for another World AIDS Day, I urge people to get tested, know their HIV status, get into care and start treatment. The Health Department offers rapid testing which provides results in 20 minutes. The test is free and can be a confidential or anonymous test.

There is no doubt being told you are HIV positive can be overwhelming, freighting and life changing. Some people may feel they may have to deal with an HIV diagnoses alone and not know where to turn for help. But there are many resources available. The Marquette County Health Department has a program which offers support and assistance to anyone living with HIV.

While things have improved in the United States, HIV continues to be a major global public health issue. In 2016, an estimated 36.7 million people were living with HIV (including 1.8 million children). Around 30 percent of these same people do not know that they have the virus. Since the start of the epidemic, an estimated 78 million people have become infected with HIV and 35 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses. In 2016, 1 million people worldwide died of AIDS-related illnesses.

Until the day there are zero new infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and no more HIV stigma and discrimination, we must continue to recognize World AIDS Day. It is a very important time for people and communities around the world to dedicate the day to activities and events to cherish the memories of those who battled with the disease, and to celebrate progress achieved in the global response to HIV. The Marquette County Health Department will continue its tradition of recognizing World AIDS Day with a Christmas tree that is decorated at the Peter White Public Library as part of the annual Winter Wonderland Walk. The tree is decorated with red ribbons or ornaments bearing the names of loved ones in our communities who have lost their lives to HIV/AIDS. The tree decorating also includes a small ceremony with the reading of the names that are on the red ribbons and a World AIDS Day prayer. Community members are invited to add a ribbon or an ornament to the tree. The tree will be decorated on November 30 beginning around 6:30 p.m.

You can show your support for World AIDS Day in many ways. You could wear a red ribbon, attend an event, encourage friends to get tested, get tested yourself, support a person living with HIV, support a family who is dealing with HIV, educate yourself, and don’t tolerate stigma or discrimination.

By continuing to recognize World AIDS Day we can keep alive the call for a spirit of social tolerance, increased awareness, improve education, reduced prejudice and stigma while honoring and remembering all those lives that have been lost in the last 36 years.

For more information contact Laura Fredrickson, HIV/AIDS Coordinator at the Marquette County Health Department at 475-7651 or via email at lfredrickson@mqtco.org.

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