PIcture Credit KP Oyo State

World AIDS Day Marks its 31st Anniversary, Recognizes the Essential Role Communities Play in the AIDS Response

Bako, John Chukwudi

Of the 37.9 million people living with HIV at the end of 2018, 79% received testing, 62% received treatment, and 53% had achieved suppression of the HIV virus with reduced risk of infecting others”.  (WHO 2019).

Since 1988, December 1 (of every year) has been dedicated as International Day to raise awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV and mourning of all those who have died of the disease. The day is known globally as World AIDS Day – and it is one of the eight official global public health campaigns marked by the World Health Organization (WHO), along with World Health Day, World Blood Donor Day, World Immunization Week, World Tuberculosis Day, World No Tobacco Day, World Malaria Day and World Hepatitis Day. World AIDS Day is witnessed around the world by government and health workers, non-governmental organizations, and individuals with array of activities from education on HIV and AIDS prevention to treatment and control.

The virus was only identified in 1984, when it sparked a huge international scare and was wrongly assumed to only affect members of the LGBT+ community. Prior to its birth in 1988, AIDS has killed between 28.9 million and 41.5 million people worldwide, and an estimated 36.7 million people are living with HIV, making it one of the most important global public health issues in recorded history.

However, available reports revealed that World AIDS Day (WAD) was first conceived in August 1987 by James W. Bunn and Thomas Netter, two public information officers for the Global Programme on AIDS at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. It was reported that Bunn and Netter took their idea to Dr. Jonathan Mann, Director of the Global Programme on AIDS (now known as UNAIDS. Dr. Mann liked the concept, approved it, and agreed with the recommendation that the first commemoration of World AIDS Day should be on 1 December 1988. Bunn, a former television broadcast Journalist from San Francisco, according reports had recommended the date of 1 December that believing it would maximize coverage of World AIDS Day by western news media, sufficiently long following the US elections but before the Christmas holidays.

The theme of WAD for the first two years of the event which focused largely on children and young people was highly criticized at the time for ignoring the fact that people of all ages may become infected with HIV. The theme despite its criticism helped to alleviate some of the stigma surrounding the disease and boosts recognition of the problem as a family disease.

In 1996, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) which became operational in that year took over the planning and promotion of World AIDS Day. UNAIDS had created the World AIDS Campaign in 1997 to focus on year-round communications, prevention and education. In 2004, the World AIDS Campaign became an independent organization.

The Pope, the president of the United States and other world leaders have used (and still using) the World AIDS Day occasion to reaffirm their commitment to eradicating the disease, a goal the UN hopes to achieve by 2030.

In 2016, a collection of HIV and AIDS related NGOs (including Panagea Global AIDS and The AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa started a campaign to rename World AIDS Day to World HIV Day. They claim the change will put the emphasis on social Justice issues, and the advancement of treatments like PrEP.

In the US, the White House began marking World AIDS Day with the iconic display of a 28 foot (8.5 m) AIDS Ribbon on the building’s North Portico in 2007. White House aid Steven M. Levine, then serving in President George W. Bush’s administration, proposed the display to symbolize the United States’ commitment to combat the World AIDS epidemic through its landmark PEPFAR program. The White House display, now an annual tradition across four presidential administrations, quickly garnered attention, as it was the first banner, sign or symbol to prominently hang from the White House since the Abraham Lincoln administration. Since 1993, the President of the United States has made an official proclamation for World AIDS Day. On 30 November 2017, President Donald Trump proclaimed World AIDS Day for 1 December.

Earlier this year, President Donald J. Trump made a bold commitment during his State of the Union Address to end the HIV epidemic in the United States. Subsequently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched an ambitious plan called “Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America” to reduce the incidence of HIV domestically by 75% in 5 years, and by 90% by 2030.

The WAD Theme

All the World AIDS Day campaigns focus on a specific theme, chosen following consultations with UNAIDS, WHO and a large number of grassroots, national and international agencies involved in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. As of 2008, each year’s theme is chosen by the Global Steering Committee of the World AIDS Campaign (WAC).

For each World AIDS Day from 2005 through 2010, the theme was “Stop AIDS. Keep the Promise”, designed to encourage political leaders to keep their commitment to achieve universal access to HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support by the year 2010.

As of 2012, the multi-year theme for World AIDS Day is “Getting to Zero: Zero new HIV infections. Zero deaths from AIDS-related illness. Zero discrimination.” The US Federal theme for the year 2014 is “Focus, Partner, Achieve: An AIDS-Free Generation“. The themes are not limited to a single day but are used year-round in international efforts to highlight HIV/AIDS awareness within the context of other major global events including the G8 Summit, as well as local campaigns like the Student Stop AIDS Campaign in the UK.

The 2019 Theme

The 2019 theme is “communities make the difference”. The event presents an important opportunity to recognize the essential role that communities have played and continue to play in the AIDS response at the international, national and local levels.  WHO is also highlighting the difference various communities are making to end the HIV epidemic while drawing global attention to the need for their broader engagement in strengthening primary health care.

According to WHO, the success made in stemming down the devastating effects of the virus is as a result of the contributions of thousands of community health workers and members of the HIV and key population networks – many of whom are living with HIV or affected by the epidemic.

“Of the 37.9 million people living with HIV at the end of 2018, 79% received testing, 62% received treatment, and 53% had achieved suppression of the HIV virus with reduced risk of infecting others”.  (WHO 2019).

Communities is crucial to this achievement; they contribute to the AIDS response in many different ways. Their leadership and advocacy ensure that the response remains relevant and grounded, keeping people at the centre and leaving no one behind. Communities include peer educators, networks of people living with or affected by HIV, such as gay men and other men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs and sex workers, women and young people, counsellors, community health workers, door-to-door service providers, civil society organizations and grass-roots activists.

Furthermore, ending AIDS by 2030 requires greater mobilization of communities to address the barriers that stop communities delivering services, including restrictions on registration and an absence of social contracting modalities. The strong advocacy role played by communities is needed more than ever to ensure that AIDS remains on the political agenda, that human rights are respected, and that decision-makers and implementers are held accountable.





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