HIV & AIDS: A History

Globally, it is estimated that over 36 million people are living with HIV with more than 35 million people having died of HIV or AIDS since it was identified in 1984. This gargantuan death rate has made HIV and AIDS one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.[1]

To honour World AIDS Day, we’re looking through history at how HIV and AIDS has impacted the UK, what you can do to protect yourself and what the future holds for HIV and AIDS treatments across the globe.

Woman holding AIDS ribbon

What is World AIDS Day?

Each year on December 1st is World AIDS Day, and this commemoration is an opportunity for individuals worldwide to come together and fight against HIV. Founded in 1988, World AIDS Day was unique in that it became the first-ever global health day.

Dedicated to those living with HIV and those that have died from an AIDS-related illness, the symbol of World AIDS Day is the red ribbon. The purpose of World AIDS Day is to raise AIDS awareness across the globe and to increase the amount of education surrounding both HIV and AIDS.

HIV in the UK

At the end of 2016, it was estimated that over 85,000 people with HIV were living in the UK with around 5,000 new cases reported each year. Of that number, more than 10,000 are undiagnosed cases, meaning that the individual doesn’t know they are HIV positive.[2]

The danger there is that an undiagnosed individual may be engaging in sexual activity that puts others at the risk of contracting the virus, stressing the importance of getting a sexual health test regularly if you’re having casual sex.

In 2016, diagnoses were down by 18% when compared to the previous year. In particular, in gay and bisexual men, new HIV diagnoses dropped by 21% in 2016 due to a range of prevention efforts.

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, those unlucky enough to contract HIV were eventually diagnosed with AIDS. This was due to the lack of antiretroviral treatment available during that period.

Nowadays, the term AIDS is rarely used by doctors in the UK, instead being referred to as advanced HIV or late-stage HIV and treatments effectively supress the virus’s effects, despite not curing it completely.[3] HIV awareness is also growing and the stigma surrounding it is starting to fade.

World map with AIDS ribbon

HIV Across the World

While the ‘epidemic’ of HIV and AIDS in the UK is relatively small, it is another story completely throughout the rest of the world. Of the 36.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2016, over 2 million of them were under 15 years old.

The majority of children infected with the virus live in sub-Saharan Africa and were infected by their HIV-positive mothers during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.

In 2016, there were over 19 million people living with HIV in eastern and southern Africa, more than 6 million in western and central Africa and over 5 million in Asia and the Pacific. Western and Central Europe and North America had an estimated figure of just over 2 million.[4]

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is a virus that systematically causes damage to the cells within the immune system that then weakens our ability to fight everyday infections and diseases.

Currently, there is no cure for HIV, but as with any life-altering illness, scientists continue to search for a permanent solution. In the meantime, there are many very effective drugs that enable the majority of individuals with the virus to live a long and perhaps most importantly, healthy life.[5]

What is AIDS?

AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is the collective term for a group of life-threatening infections that can be contracted by individuals who have been infected by HIV. These occur when your immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus.[6]

Therefore, AIDS cannot be transmitted from one individual to another, whereas the HIV virus definitely can. We will look into the transmission of HIV later in this article.

How is HIV Transmitted?

HIV can be found in the bodily fluids of an infected individual. This includes semen, breast milk as well as vaginal and anal fluids. Therefore, having unprotected sex puts you at greater risk of contracting the virus, with gay men being the most at risk.[7]

Ensuring you use protection, especially if you are engaging in casual sex could prevent the virus from entering your body. Making sure that you or your partner wears a condom is essential. Thankfully, there are a wide variety of condoms available to buy nowadays, so it doesn’t need to be seen as boring.

It’s important to remember that no form of contraception can provide 100% protection against HIV and STIs.

Because of the virus’ fragility, it cannot survive outside of the body for long periods of time. Therefore, it can’t be transmitted through saliva, spitting, sneezing, urine or sweat. The old myth about catching HIV from a toilet seat is therefore completely false.

Causes of HIV are generally through sexual contact. Most people diagnosed in the UK have contracted the virus through unprotected vaginal or anal sex, though it is still possible to catch HIV through oral sex. With oral sex, the risk is increased if the person giving oral has mouth ulcers or sores etc.[8]

HIV Treatment

While there is no HIV vaccine as such, HIV treatment in the UK has come on leaps and bounds since the virus was first identified in the 80s. Significant progress has been made in antiretroviral treatment across the UK in recent years with studies showing that 96% of those diagnosed with HIV are accessing treatment.

Furthermore, 94% of those accessing treatment are virally supressed, meaning the virus is still present but undetectable in the body. There are still improvements to be made however. Late diagnosis remains a problem with 428 people dying from AIDS-related illnesses in 2017.[9]

How Can HIV be Prevented?

Protecting yourself during sex, whether casual or with a long-term partner, is essentially the easiest way of limiting the risk of contracting the virus. Condoms and lubricants paired together means there is less chance of the condom tearing due to friction, reducing the risk.

However, we understand that on occasion, you may have forgotten to wear protection. If this is the case and you’re worried you may have put yourself at risk, then the best thing to do is visit your local sexual health clinic. If you are unsure of where this may be, be sure to visit the NHS locator.

How is HIV Tested?

HIV testing is free of charge under the NHS with some sexual health clinics providing the results on the same day. Home testing kits are also available from some providers.

In the UK, there are four main types of HIV test:

  • Home Testing: A home testing kit requires you to collect a small sample of either saliva or blood. The test is conducted at home and provides the results within a few minutes.
  • Home Sampling: This is essentially the same as a Home Test, but you are required to send the kit off for testing. Results are shared within a few days via text or telephone. Some people are eligible for free kits, but they are also available to buy.
  • Blood Test: If you were to visit a sexual health clinic, a sample of blood would be taken and sent to a laboratory for testing. The wait for results can vary from a few minutes to a few days.
  • Point of Care: A sample of saliva or blood will be taken in the sexual health clinic. These don’t need to be sent anywhere and the results will be given to you in a matter of minutes.

Blood tests are generally seen as the most accurate of the different testing types. If the result is positive, you will be referred to a specialist HIV clinic for further tests and discussions about ongoing treatment.[10]

References:

[1] “About World AIDS Day” World AIDS Day, Undated http://www.worldaidsday.org/about/ 

[2] “HIV statistics” Terrence Higgins Trust, Undated https://www.tht.org.uk/hiv-and-sexual-health/about-hiv/hiv-statistics

[3] “About HIV” Avert, Undated https://www.tht.org.uk/hiv-and-sexual-health/about-hiv

[4] “The Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic” HIV.gov, Undated https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/data-and-trends/global-statistics

[5] “Overview: HIV and AIDS” NHS, Undated https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/

[6] “Overview: HIV and AIDS” NHS, Undated https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/

[7] “Overview: HIV and AIDS” NHS, Undated https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/

[8] “Causes: HIV and AIDS” NHS, Undated https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/causes/

[9] “HIV AND AIDS IN THE UNITED KINGDOM” Terrence Higgins Trust, Undated https://www.avert.org/professionals/hiv-around-world/western-central-europe-north-america/uk#footnote47_lnk9sne

[10] “Diagnosis: HIV and AIDS” NHS, Undated https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/diagnosis/