World AIDS Day 2015 – a word from Sarah Hand

01 December 2015

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AIDS awareness ribbon

As we mark the 28th World AIDS Day, I reflect back on the unprecedented progress made in response to a global health and development challenge affecting hundreds of millions of people. I also look back on what has been harder to make progress on, and why HIV-related stigma remains one the biggest challenges we have yet to fully overcome.

What we know is that HIV stigma is holding us back. With nearly 46% of all those estimated to be living with HIV globally not yet aware of their status, the immense progress made on HIV treatment and the role this plays in driving down new infections will never be fully realised unless we improve our approach to testing. 

A new generation has grown up in an era where AIDS-related deaths have gone down drastically, and we no longer see visible in our communities the suffering of those that died before treatment and early diagnosis. Yet this new generation still do not test in the numbers that we need to truly break the chain of unintended onward transmission. 

I first started working in HIV testing in London in the mid-1990s and reflecting back on those years as a counsellor to now – nearly 20 years later, I remain challenged as to why we have not been able to normalise HIV, take the fear and stigma away and help people see the enormous benefits to be had from knowing your status. Of course I understand why that fear and stigma exists, and this is why for all those that have come through the doors of an HIV testing clinic and taken the self-assured steps to know their status, I fully commend. 

Now in 2015, with all the benefits of better data to tell us who in our communities we need to be focusing on, we still need to understand what is holding them back. We need to work harder to ensure that our HIV testing services are encouraging the right people to come through the door.

For example, in environments where men who have sex with men, or adolescent girls, may be the target audience – having specific designated time slots or counsellors who respect and understand these groups best, can make a huge difference.  I remember more recently when I worked in the Caribbean, one young man being very clear that he would not have come in for a test had it not been for a targeted ‘Men’s Health Day’ approach.

We have to see the value of HIV testing services beyond the place where we can make the diagnoses, and refer people who’ve tested positive into the care and treatment programmes they need. We also have to look at the enormous opportunity that exists to ensure that those who test as negative, are supported to stay negative going forward.

Sarah Hand, CEO

Sarah Hand

This World AIDS Day, AVERT is concentrating its activities on breaking down HIV stigma via our ‘Stand Up to HIV’ campaign. We’ve created an infographic that highlights what stigma is, how it stops people accessing testing, and what we can do about it. We’ve also created a new webpage entitled Are you worried about HIV?, which includes an animation that talks people through their fears of HIV so that they will ultimately take the decision to test.

Join us this World AIDS Day, get tested and help to spread our message by sharing our campaign tools over social media. #StandUpToHIV

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©iStock.com/delihayat

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