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Published: December 5th 2009
Almost thirty years ago a report was published by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about patients dying from ordinarily non-lethal diseases because of a mysterious suppression of the immune system. First noted in homosexual men and then later in injection drug users, blood transfusion patients, haemophiliacs, heterosexuals and newborns, in 1982 the term Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was coined. Many theories about its cause were around in the early 80’s but in 1984 a virus was identified as the causal factor. First called ‘human T-cell lymphotropic virus type III (HTLV III) and Lymphadenopathy Associated Virus (LAV) it wasn’t until 1986 the name settled on what we know today; Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). We now think that the virus originated in ‘Pan Troglodytes’ a species of chimpanzee and was transferred to humans via a scratch of bite in the 1940’s or 1950’s. Since then an estimated 28.9 million people have died from AIDS and estimated 39.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide.
We all now know how the virus is transmitted, through the transfer of bodily fluids, attacking and suppressing the T white blood cells of the immune system, allowing the body to be attacked from ever more, normally, harmless illnesses. There is as of yet no cure, only anti-retrovirus drugs that slow the rate of the virus prolonging life, and drugs to build up the immune system allowing it to fight off infection. Africa is especially affected with 70% of global HIV cases and 72% of AIDS deaths. The first case was recognised in Malawi in 1985, now there are estimated 700,000 to 1 million people living with HIV and more than 300,000 people with AIDS.
This is why on the 1st December every year since 1988 we recognise this global pandemic with World Aids Day. The theme this year was ‘universal access and human rights’. The red ribbon that is now the symbol of AIDS awareness, was designed in 1991 by the New York organisation ‘Visual AIDS’, bringing together a group of artists to create a non-copyrighted symbol of support for AIDS sufferers, originally in the US but now used all across the world.
St John attended the Blantyre World AIDS Day event, at Kachere Primary School. We showed how St John helps care for HIV/AIDS sufferers, and in particular the bed bound, through the primary health care (PHC) and home based care (HBC) projects. Other organisations attending were John Hopkins Medical University, the Malawi police, the Malawi Blood Transfusion Service, CARE, Banja La Mtsogolo (family planning), the Red Cross/Crescent, and PSI, all displaying how their organisation deals with HIV/AIDS, either in prevention, treatment or care. The event started with the arrival of a walk from Blantyre city centre to the school, the participants in World AIDS Day t-shirts and hats, carrying placards with slogans about the illness. There were performances and displays from local groups, including HIV positive members, all day,y with traditional dances and singing, drama groups and an aerobatics team. The event ended with speeches from the special guests and representatives from Blantyre city council (all in chichewa, but I have to assume about AIDS).
Although HIV is less of a death sentence than it once was, with drugs that help manage the disease and prolong life, the battle is far from being won; there are still tens of millions of sufferers worldwide, no cure as of yet and bias drug distribution away from areas where they are most needed. This is why worldwide days such as this remind people that it is still a pandemic that needs solving.
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