World Aids Day: Fighting stigma is still an uphill battle
I am HIV-positive.
These are the four words no one dares utter here.
Well, not while the stigma is still looming.
While HIV and Aids are often used interchangeably, they are different diagnoses.
One can have the former - a virus - without having the latter, which is an immunodeficiency syndrome.
When the late Boom Boom Room entertainment director, Paddy Chew, came out in the earlier years of the disease, I admired him for braving the prejudice, and worried if he was being foolhardy.
It was Dec 12, 1998.
Paddy broke free of the cloak of anonymity behind which every person with HIV and Aids hides, and made his condition public during the First National Aids Conference in Singapore.
He was the first Singaporean Aids victim to do so.
There was a buzz in the room when he did.
I remembered shaking his hand.
His words that day struck a deep chord in me: "You are the first (person) who took my hand without hesitating."
At that moment, I felt a little sad.
I could only imagine a tiny fraction of the pain he went through when he first announced he had Aids.
So when he died at the age of 39 in August 1999, I wasn't surprised that no other HIV/Aids patient here dared to be publicly identified, until two years ago.
It was 13 years after Paddy's death when another decided to brave the attacks and become the new face of HIV.
Senior executive at Action For Aids, Avin Tan, 28, is Singapore's only publicly-known person living with HIV today.
I admire him for braving the prejudice, like Paddy did. This prejudice is born from many associating the disease with behaviour seen as morally questionable.
It has been almost 30 yearssince reports of the first two people in Singapore battling HIV/Aids emerged. This number has risen to more than 6,000 today.
But fighting stigma and caring for those with HIV/Aids remains an uphill task.
There have been several campaigns and educational programmes to tackle important issues like stigmatisation and discrimination, women and children with HIV/Aids, and access to affordable anti-HIV medications.
Yet the prejudice against sufferers of the disease continues.
With today's advancements in medicine, those with HIV can enjoy lifespans equivalent to those not infected. They return to work after their diagnoses, and some even become parents.
Like diabetes and hypertension, having HIV is now a chronic condition that some individuals live with.
If people can live side by side with diabetics, why not give those with HIV a chance?
Share your views with Judith at firstname.lastname@example.org
HISTORY OF AIDS
One possibility of how it all began
Between 1880s and 1920s
A hunter kills a chimpanzee carrying the HIV virus in its blood in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The infected blood enters his body, possibly through an open wound.
While harmless to the chimpanzee, the virus will prove lethal to mankind.
The lost years
1920s and 1970s
The virus spreads slowly across Africa at first, but soon reaches the rest of the world.
On June 5, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes a report on cases of rare lung infection where the patients’ immune systems fail to work.
The CDC calls the disease Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids). Scientists believe it is spread by an infectious agent in contaminated blood.
1983 - 1985
The CDC identifies how it is transmitted.
The first test for the disease is licensed.
The virus that causes Aids is officially known as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
The United Nations General Assembly designates the World Health Organization (WHO) to lead the effort in the worldwide struggle against Aids.
1988 - 1991
The WHO declares Dec 1 to be World Aids Day.
The red ribbon is introduced as a symbol of Aids solidarity
Aids is the top cause of death for US men aged between 25 and 44.
Aids is the top cause of death for all Americans aged between 25 and 44.
A medical breakthrough
Highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) proves to be a very effective treatment. New Aids cases in the US decline for the first time.
Aids is the fourth biggest killer in the world and the no. 1 killer in Africa.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves new drugs that make HIV treatment safer, easier, and more effective. But the drugs do not cure Aids.
The next wave
Aids is the biggest killer worldwide for people aged between 15 and 59.
Dozens of countries are experiencing serious HIV/Aids epidemics.
FDA approves a test kit for HIV that uses oral samples. It is able to give results in about 20 minutes
Still a problem
Only 3 million out of the 33 million people with HIV are getting treatment.
The US lifts its HIV travel and immigration ban.
The FDA approves a drug that lowers the chance of HIV in people who are at high risk of getting it.
Scientists work towards finding a safe and effective HIV vaccine.
5 FACTS ON HIV & AIDS
1 Aids is the most advanced stage of HIV infection. There is no cure for HIV, but there is treatment available which can suppress the virus and prolong the lives of those with HIV.
2 A person infected with HIV can take up to 10 years to develop Aids. HIV cannot be transmitted by air, water, surfaces or insect bites.
3 HIV can survive in room temperature blood for weeks. In dried blood, it can survive for up to six days.
4 When HIV enters our immune system, it is cloaked in carbohydrate sugar molecules that “fools” our bodies into thinking the virus is a nutrient.
5 Experiments have shown that HIV is killed by temperatures over 60° C, but it is not sensitive to extreme cold
CELEBS & AIDS
1946 - 1991
British singer-songwriter and frontman of rock band Queen is one of the greatest rock legends of all time. Mercury died of bronchopneumonia, brought on by Aids, in 1991 at age 45.
1938 - 1993
Russian-born Nureyev is considered one of the best dancers of his time. He tested positive for HIV in 1984, though this wasn’t confirmed until after his death in 1993 at age 53.
1960 - 1986
Carangi, the world's first supermodel, was wildly popular in the late 70s and early 80s. The famed beauty is believed to have contracted the virus by sharing a HIV-tainted needle. She was diagnosed with Aids in 1986, and died that same year at age 26.
EARVIN “MAGIC” JOHNSON
Johnson is one of the greatest players in NBA history. In 1991, He tested positive for HIV. He established the Magic Johnson Foundation to support HIV/Aids research and became a HIV activist.
Panozzo is the co-founder and original bass player of rock group Styx. In 1991, he was diagnosed with HIV and by 1998, it had progressed to Aids. In 2001, he publicly disclosed that he was a homosexual with Aids. He still performs at some Styx concerts.
Louganis, a four-time Olympic champion, was the first diver to earn a perfect score of 10. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1988, but went on to win two gold medals in the Games that year.
BY THE NUMBERS
The number of new HIV cases reported among Singapore residents in 2013 , according to MOH statistics. Of these, 428 cases got the infection through sex, with 40 per cent through hetrosexual sex, 46 per cent through homosexual sex, and 8 per cent through bisexual sex.
Percentage of the new cases in 2013 that already had late-stage HIV infection when they were diagnosed.
Percentage of the new cases in 2013 that were males
About World Aids Day
World Aids Day will be commemorated around the world on Monday, as a show of support for those living with HIV, and to remember those who have died from the disease.
First held in 1988, it was the first time a day was allocated around the world to mark a health issue.
People will be encouraged to learn more about the disease on World Aids Day, and can even take online quizzes testing how HIV-aware they are, according to the World Aids Day website.
In Singapore, there are a number of World Aids Day activities spearheaded by Action for Aids Singapore.
Apart from a HIV/Aids awareness booth at Changi General Hospital, there are also ongoing campaigns, including the "Love Me For Who I Am" campaign.
The campaign is for Singaporeans from all walks of life to pledge their support for those living with HIV.
Last year, 454 new cases of HIV were reported among Singapore residents, of which 428 were male.
Visit TNP's World Aids Day interactive at tnp.sg/worldaidsday.