Killing thousands of people within months, the world was in shock and medical experts were left dumbfounded. Was this the biblical apocalypse we’d been waiting for? It may well have been.
Thousands of deaths quickly became millions and, to date, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says an estimated 30 million people have died. “Antiretrovirals weren’t yet available, so although we could offer treatment for opportunistic infections there was no treatment for their HIV. It was a very sad and difficult time,” said WHO coordinator of HIV testing and prevention, Dr Rachel Baggaley in a statement on World Aids Day.
She said the outlook for people with HIV in the early days of the epidemic were grim. First isolated in 1983 by experts at the Institut Pasteur, HIV was thought to only affect specific groups, such as drug users and homosexual males. South Africa quickly became one of the African countries with the highest prevalence rates.
There was little hope for the infected as government made every excuse not to roll out treatment. But our understanding of the virus has changed in 30 years and the scientific community has made remarkable treatment strides. Riaan Norval, who is brand champion for Anova Health Institute’s Health4Men, acknowledges the tremendous advancements in the medical field and people’s attitudes over the last three decades.
“A widely published Partner 1 and Partner 2 scientific study has recently proven that an HIV-positive person with an undetectable viral load can’t pass HIV on to their partner … an important medical breakthrough,” Norval told The Citizen.
He says it’s also significant for people living with HIV in how they view their own status and deal with internalised shame. Stigma and shame have presented major obstacles to how people viewed HIV and those living with the virus, even when testing, counselling and treatment where made available in South Africa. However, with medical advancements such as the one-a-day pill and broader education outreach, there has been a notable change in the HIV/Aids landscape.
“Another major influencer of public perception about HIV has been the efficacy of PrEP [which lowers the chance of HIV-negative people becoming infected]. This has aided better health outcomes for people getting tested and going onto treatment,” says Norval.
He does, however, point out that wide-spread stigma, ignorance and indifference remain the hardest barriers to cross when it comes to the eradication HIV transmission. The theme of “Know Your Status” on World Aids Day this past Saturday is an important one even 30 years after the virus hit, and WHO says one in four people still don’t know that they have HIV.