The world has come a long way since the days when an HIV diagnosis was a definite death sentence. It is now a manageable chronic health condition and with increasing access to effective HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care, people living with HIV can now lead long and healthy lives.
A look at current statistics on the virus underscores the remarkable progress made in the last four decades thanks to scientific advances and the development of antiretroviral drugs.
There were approximately 37.9 million people living with HIV at the end of 2018, with 62 per cent of adults and 54 per cent of children in low- and middle-income countries receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART). In addition, the majority of pregnant and breastfeeding women living with HIV also received ART, which protects their health and prevents HIV transmission to their newborns.
But it is not all good news. Due to gaps in HIV services, 770 000 people died from HIV-related causes last year and 1.7 million people were newly infected. This is a sobering reminder that HIV/Aids a major global public health issue and there is no room for complacency. There can be no easing up in efforts to stop the spread of infections or find a cure for this virus.
That is why the theme of today's World Aids Day observance, Ending the HIV/Aids Epidemic: Community by Community, is of particular importance as it draws attention to the essential role communities have been playing—and must continue to play—in the Aids response at all levels.
This fits well with the World Health Organisation's (WHO) recommendations for a mix of strategies to reach high-risk individuals, including community-based testing, self-testing and provider-assisted referrals. In some parts of the world, there have been trained peers and community health workers have been successfully delivering rapid diagnostic tests with same-day results, enabling more people to know their HIV status.
Increased rapid testing in community settings can replace more time-consuming methods which involve weeks of delays in delivering test results before treatment can start.
According to the WHO, community-based social networks should be mobilised to tackle the increasing demand for HIV testing, including self-testing and to promote dual HIV/syphilis rapid tests and new digital tools. There is because there is evidence that people are more likely to continue with HIV treatment when peer educators counsel and support each other.
Another approach recommended by the WHO is for community health workers to support monitoring and data collection.
These strategies can be implemented here in T&T where there are already many civil society organisations providing support to people living with HIV, as well as support organisations offering social and psychological care.
These efforts can be strengthened with the provision of more technical and financial assistance so that these community-based groups can expand their work on the ground and reach people in every corner of the country with testing and support services.