HIV Vaccine Awareness Day – breaking the stigma & ending the epidemic

By Gloria Jiang

HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, which takes place annually on May 18, is a day of recognition and appreciation for the collective work of researchers, healthcare experts, volunteers, and community participants who dedicate themselves to developing an effective HIV vaccine. This day also serves as a platform for enhancing public awareness of HIV-related issues, eradicating stereotypes and misinformation, and emphasizing the significance of research in preventive HIV vaccines. Having access to a reliable and effective HIV vaccine, coupled with a proper understanding of the disease, is instrumental in bringing an end to the HIV pandemic.

The status of HIV transmission and research

HIV remains a major global health concern. According to WHO, approximately 38.4 million individuals are living with HIV worldwide. Among individuals aged 15-49 years, it is estimated that 0.7% of the global population is living with HIV. Despite progress in its prevention and treatment, the impact of HIV differs across various communities and geographical areas. 

In the U.S, approximately 1.2 million people have HIV according to the latest data collected in 2019, with about 13% unaware of their HIV-positive status. In 2020, the number of new HIV diagnoses was 30,635 in the U.S. and 6 dependent areas, which is a 17% decrease from the previous year, likely due to COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on HIV prevention, testing, and health care services. Based on demographics, gay and bisexual were the most affected population by HIV; individuals aged 13 to 34 represented more than half (57%) of the new HIV diagnosis; and there was a disproportionate impact on black/African American and Hispanic/Latino populations.

The aforementioned statistics underscore the vital role the public can play in supporting research and advocacy for HIV prevention. Currently, there is no vaccine available that can prevent HIV infection or completely cure the ailment. The Mosaico trial, the most recent extensive HIV vaccine trial, was halted in January 2023 as it was found to have no protection against HIV acquisition. Scientists have further confirmed that a proficient HIV vaccine will not be available in the near future. 

Nevertheless, as members of the public, we have an essential role to play in ending the HIV pandemic by fostering general understanding and reducing stigma.

Removing the stigma of HIV

Social stigma surrounding HIV is often propelled by various misbeliefs and misinformation, such as the conception that HIV can be easily transmitted through touch, or that it invariably leads to death. Such baseless ideas contribute to the marginalization and discrimination towards individuals with HIV, negatively affecting various aspects of their lives, including employment, housing, healthcare, and relationships. Research has shown that unemployment rates among people with HIV fluctuates between 45% and 65%

Moreover, these stigmas can detrimentally impact on mental health, leading to diminished self-esteem and heightened levels of depression and anxiety. Therefore, it is crucial to debunk these myths and educate the public about the facts of HIV transmission, which primarily occur through unprotected sexual contact, sharing needles, and from mother to child during childbirth or breastfeeding. Likewise, the public should be aware that advancements in medical treatments have transformed HIV into a manageable chronic condition, no longer posing threatening life issues for those infected as long as they receive adequate and timely treatment.

The following information provides a broad understanding of HIV prevention and treatment. By staying informed and disseminating accurate information, we can help dispel misconceptions and contest prejudiced beliefs surrounding HIV. It is crucial to promote empathy, compassion, and acceptance towards individuals with HIV, treating them with respect and dignity they deserve. 

HIV prevention:

  • Practice safe sex: The primary HIV transmission is unprotected anal or vaginal sex. Using a condom or taking blocking medicine can effectively reduce the risk. 
  • Encouraging testing: Before engaging in sexual activities, it is essential to talk to your partner about getting tested. 
  • Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP): This preventive method is intended for individuals who are not diagnosed with HIV but are at substantial risk of getting infected. It entails daily consumption of a designated HIV medicine to lower the possibility of acquiring HIV through sexual activity or injected drug use.

HIV treatment:

  • Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is advised for individuals living with HIV. While ART does not cure HIV, it can help people live longer and healthier. It requires the daily intake of a combination of HIV medicines.

In conclusion, the journey towards an HIV-free world is a strenuous one, but it shares a profound resonance with the ERA in fostering equality, dignity, and improved quality of life for all. On this day, let’s support organizations and initiatives working towards HIV prevention, testing, and treatment to make a meaningful impact. 

Header image photo by Iván Díaz on Unsplash

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