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1st December 2017

Ending the stigma & isolation of HIV/AIDS

December 1st isn’t just a reminder that the winter holidays are nearly here. It’s an opportunity to show solidarity with over 36 million people who are living with HIV worldwide, and to remind the public and governments that it hasn’t gone away.

This year’s World AIDS Day #LetsEndIt theme is a perfect way to highlight that the fight isn’t only against the virus. It’s also about ending isolation and stigma ‒ factors that can delay diagnosis and treatment as well as preventing HIV* carriers from living full and happy lives. It makes sense to focus on the big picture, given that the number of new HIV cases globally continues to fall, but keeping in mind that infection rates are still as high as 1 in 3 in some of the worst affected countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Medtech is at the forefront of this movement, with an increasing number of innovative solutions.  One of these is the brainchild of Canadian high school student Nicole Ticea and could be especially revolutionary for tackling HIV/AIDS in low-income countries. The pregnancy-type test is capable of diagnosing HIV in babies under the age of 18 months and can also detect HIV in adults who’ve only been infected for three months. The disposable device is inexpensive, it doesn’t require electricity and it gives results in under an hour.

Being able to treat children from birth with HIV therapy can allow them to have a completely normal life with a normal immune system, however, in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo where stigmatisation of HIV/AIDS is very high, parents are often reluctant to have their children tested. Even when the HIV taboo can be overcome, access to swift and accurate testing is not universal in the DRC because laboratory infrastructure is often lacking or results do not arrive quickly enough. But there are some new tools, such as point-of-care tests, that are allowing doctors to diagnose and treat during the same visit.

Migrants are another group of people who frequently fall through the cracks of healthcare programs because they’re deterred by fear, poverty and discrimination. In some countries self-test kits can offer convenience and privacy for adults, who can get results in as little as 20 minutes. With anonymity not always guaranteed at clinics, being able to test for HIV at home could be particularly useful.

Although about half of people affected by HIV worldwide are women, it seems in many places that women are more proactive about getting tested. Studies have shown that male involvement in HIV testing reduces the risks of mother-to-child transmission and infant mortality by more than 40%. In Uganda, a nurse called Ellon Mabaasa is leading the way to increase male involvement by organising a Wellness Campaign aimed at couples testing. It’s about breaking down barriers and spreading responsibility across the family in order to keep future generations healthy.

*HIV stands for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is passed on from one person to another via body fluids and attacks the body’s immune system. With early diagnosis and treatment, people with HIV can live normal lives without developing Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which occurs when the immune system has become so weak that it can no longer fight off a whole range of diseases with which it would normally cope.