World AIDS Day: This year’s biggest HIV and AIDS news stories

Jessica Geen December 1, 2009
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One of the biggest stories around HIV this year happened when Pope Benedict XVI spoke out about his view on HIV. While on a flight to Africa in March, he told journalists that condoms “aggravate” the problem of HIV. He was roundly condemned for the statement, while respected medical journal The Lancet demanded that he retract the comments. The Pope has previously counselled that abstinence is the only way to counter the spread of the disease. The Lancet later attacked the UK’s policy on HIV prevention, saying that Department of Health recommendations for a stronger public health response were being ignored, despite one former senior government health official warning that the problem is an “appalling statistic”, and a “serious epidemiological issue”.

Around the same time, charity Unicef warned that Britain now had the highest number of new HIV infections in western Europe, with gay and bisexual men and black Africans most at risk. In 2007, there were more than 7,700 new HIV diagnoses in the UK and the organisation also warned that infection rates in young people were rising, with ten per cent of new infections occurring in those aged between 16 and 24. The second highest figure for new infections was in France, with 4,075. Germany, which has ten million more people than Britain, had 2,752 new cases. Four in ten of those diagnosed with the disease were men who have sex with men.

In August, there was uproar when a German company decided to use an image of Adolf Hitler to warn people about HIV. The film clip, by German AIDS charity Regenbogen e.V. showed a straight couple kissing and undressing. The graphic video then shows them having sex and at the end, the man is revealed as Hitler. UK HIV charities Terrence Higgins Trust and National AIDS Trust said that the ad could increase stigma about HIV and lead to people refusing to come forward for tests.

The biggest HIV-related survey of the year was held in Thailand, with the results being announced in September. The seven-year trial of 16,000 people suggested that a combination of two experimental HIV vaccines cuts infection rates by one third. Although the study was initially greeted with excitement, some scientists have since questioned the statistics and suggested the results were a fluke.

However, there was plenty of good news. During Manchester Pride, held in August, a local councillor made headlines after telling the crowds he was HIV-positive. Harpurhey councillor Paul Fairweather told 3,000 people: “We have to beat the stigma and the nonsense surrounding this. We can never put pressure on anybody to reveal their status, it’s an incredibly individual, personal thing.” Since the announcement, he told, he had received dozens of letters and emails in support.

The most positive change for those living with HIV came from across the pond. In November, US president Barack Obama announced he was ending the ban on HIV-positive people entering the country. The 22-year-old law was one of the most restrictive immigration policies in the world for people with HIV, similar only to policies in countries like Yemen and Qatar. Obama described the ban as a “decision rooted in fear rather than fact” and added: “If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it.” He said he hoped the ban would be completely lifted by the new year.

In the UK, the government announced last month that sex education will become compulsory for all schools and will include lessons of HIV and gay sex. Teaching about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases will begin at secondary school level, when children will also learn about contraception and the emotional implications of having sex. However, gay rights groups warned that as faith schools were being allowed to teach sex education in line with their own beliefs, this could lead to some students receiving poor advice.

It is also expected there will be changes made around gay men donating blood. Last month, a public meeting discussed the possibility of a five-year deferral for gay and bisexual men donating blood, rather than a lifetime ban. Currently, any man who has ever had sex with another man is barred from donating due to the risk of HIV transmission. The meeting, held by the independent Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs, was part of a new review on the long list of people excluded for life due to the danger of blood-borne diseases between transmitted. Gay rights charity Stonewall also changed its stance on blood donation this year, deciding that prohibitions should be the same for gay and straight people. The findings from the review on blood donation will be revealed next year.

In 2010, one of the most important pieces of legislation for HIV-positive people will be the Equality Bill, which protects people from discrimination based on their actual or perceived HIV status. One development in the legislation will ban the use of pre-employment health questionnaires, which force people to reveal their status. The government has fewer than 70 parliamentary days left before a general election must be held, which means that the bill must be passed through parliament in this time.

In the last few weeks, in the run-up to World AIDS Day, all three main party leaders have given their commitment to tackling the spread of the disease. Prime minister Gordon Brown paid tribute to the gay community in the 1980s for its work in tackling the epidemic. Opposition leader David Cameron promised a new strategy to end stigma around infection and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg spoke of the need to avoid complacency.

The latest figures for new HIV infections in gay men showed that in 2008, an estimated 2,760 men who have sex with men were newly diagnosed with HIV. This is six per cent fewer than in 2007. HIV charities have been quick to emphasise that this does not mean that not enough gay men are coming forward for tests. Figures show that the numbers coming forward for testing rose in 2008. However, they urged gay and bisexual men to continue getting tested regularly.

On a final note, research released this week found that one in five people living with HIV has been harassed or threatened in the last year. The People Living With HIV Stigma Index, a two-year research project funded by the Department for International Development and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, also found that one in five people with HIV had been refused medical treatment. The paper was presented before parliament yesterday.

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