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World AIDS Day 2014: Closing the gap

Written by Nicole Scholz

Every year, 1 December marks World AIDS Day. It was proclaimed by the United Nations in 1988 and is probably the most recognised of all international health days. Its main aim is to raise awareness. It’s an opportunity for people around the globe to unite in the fight against HIV/AIDS, show their solidarity and support for the people living with HIV, and commemorate those who have died. And it’s about celebrating the steps forward that have been achieved over the years, such as better access to treatment and prevention.

AIDS has already cost the lives of some 39 million people. It is still one of the main causes of death in many parts of the world and remains a major public health concern in Europe.

End AIDS by 2030

Since 2011, the World AIDS Days have been focusing on ‘Getting to zero: zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, zero AIDS-related deaths’, with the visionary goal of ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030. This year’s specific theme is ‘Close the gap‘:

  • the testing gap so that the 19 million people who don’t know they are HIV-positive can start getting support;
  • the treatment gap, to make sure that all 35 million people living with HIV have access to antiretroviral therapy;
  • the gap in access to medicines for children, enabling all children with HIV (and not only the current 24%) to benefit from treatment;
  • the access gap, in order to include everybody as part of the solution.

Positive global trends

Considerable progress has been achieved over the years, and UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) recently released encouraging statistics for 2013: New HIV infections (2.1 million globally) have decreased by 38% among adults, and by as much as 58% among children since 2001. 12.9 million people with HIV are now receiving antiretroviral therapy (which doesn’t cure AIDS, but controls the virus and helps the person’s damaged immune system to fight off life-threating, HIV-related ‘opportunistic’ infections). The number of deaths from tuberculosis – one of the most common of these opportunistic infections and the leading cause of death among people with HIV – has fallen by 36% since 2004.

A turn for the worse in Europe

Close the Gap

An official campaign poster by UNAids.org for the 2014 World Aids Day.

Contrary to the encouraging worldwide trend, the number of HIV cases in Europe and neighbouring countries (i.e. the WHO European Region spanning Europe and central Asia) is going up, and a wide gap between the east and west of the region has emerged: In its HIV/AIDS surveillance report 2012, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) mentions over 131 000 new HIV cases in the region. This corresponds to an 8% rise since 2011. While the number of AIDS deaths fell by 14% in the region as a whole, it increased by 58% in the countries in its east. In some eastern European countries in particular, the report found that coverage of preventive measures and testing was not up to par. Moreover, around 50% of the people living with HIV/AIDS were diagnosed at a later stage of infection – although research shows that early diagnosis and timely treatment are crucial for stopping the spread of the disease. And only about a third of those who needed antiretroviral therapy were actually receiving it.

What the EU is doing to curb HIV/AIDS

Two bodies have been set up, the HIV/AIDS Think Tank and the HIV/AIDS Civil Society Forum. Their mission is to strengthen cooperation between the EU and its neighbourhood, and to foster the involvement of NGOs and other stakeholders in the development of policies. A Joint Action on HIV/AIDS with the WHO Regional Office for Europe was started in 2013 to boost prevention in the WHO European Region. HIV/AIDS projects are being funded through the EU Health Programme 2014-20. In March this year, the European Commission adopted an Action Plan on HIV/AIDS in the EU and neighbouring countries: 2014-16. It prolongs the previous Action Plan with 50 specific actions in six main areas. Examples range from tackling stigmatisation and discrimination, to improving access to voluntary testing, treatment and care, to targeted measures for the groups in which the disease is most widely spread (men having sex with men, people injecting drugs, sex workers and prisoners as well as migrants and mobile populations).

How can you help to close the gap(s)?

There are many ways to get engaged: Inform yourself about HIV/AIDS. Find out what the gaps are in your town, region or country. Look for World AIDS Day activities and events. Tweet about them (#WAD2014). Talk about them on Facebook. Get involved with a local AIDS organisation and donate time or money… Every little step counts towards ending AIDS by 2030!

…and of course, share with us below your ideas on how to best ‘close the gap’.

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