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HIV/AIDS: sex, drugs and empathy

A cure for HIV/AIDS is not in sight. Yet there is hope to have it under control by 2030. But this involves legalising drugs and sex work – and decriminalising empathy… These news flashes and more in this week’s Sex in the Press.

Back in the headlines
Many of those 35 million people with HIV have healthy and productive lives thanks to antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). Still, HIV/AIDS has killed 39 million people over the last 30 years. Last year it killed 1.5 million.

It remains a story. But the media seems to be burned out on the subject.

However, one recent headline caught a lot of attention. It claimed that ‘100 AIDS researchers were killed’ in the Malaysian Airlines disaster over the Ukraine.

The true number turned out to be six – thereby proving, once again, that the media tends to be sensationalist when covering HIV. But the tragedy did bring more attention to the dead’s destination: the 20th International AIDS Conference in Australia.

Sex, drugs and…
The conference resonated with a recent call by a very sober institution to decriminalise drugs and sex work, according to ‘The World Health Organization wants to legalize sex work and drugs’.

The WHO believes that to contain the virus by 2030, we must de-stigmatise groups where HIV tends to spread the fastest: gays, transgendered, drug users, sex workers and adolescents with overly-strict parents.

“The solution isn't to crack down on these groups more, because we've already seen that strategy causes HIV to spread — not just to at-risk groups, but beyond them. The at-risk group becomes a vector that harms all of society. So the only sane solution is to decriminalize things like sex work, so that sex workers get proper health care and don't endanger their clients (who in turn endanger their partners, and so on).”

“The point is that criminalizing sex work and drug use winds up harming everyone. And the WHO is trying to eliminate that harm, by going to the source of the problem.”

End the hypocrisy
The problem is not only out-dated laws, but also institutionalised hypocrisy.

Kenya, Namibia, Russia, South Africa, the US and Zimbabwe were particularly shamed in one report presented at the AIDS conference, according to ‘Police accused of choking war on HIV/Aids by destroying condoms’.

One example: “Corrupt police officers in Mombasa and Nairobi trail social workers distributing condoms to prostitutes and pounce on both to demand bribes, sex or threaten them with arrest.”

“While one arm of Government is working to get condoms into people’s hands, another is taking them away,” notes one activist.

Such actions help explain why sex workers are often afraid to seek official help and, hence, are 12 to 15 times more likely to have HIV.

Spreading the word
There were many optimistic stories presented at the conference, according to the excellent overview ‘As Ebola, Mers and HIV/Aids make headlines, what are the biggest risks to the world's health? And what is being done about them?’.

But a full-out cure remains elusive. So for now, “the best advice for those infected with HIV is: keep on taking the tablets.”

However, of the 35 million estimated to be infected, 19 million remain unidentified. They are unable to take tablets or modify their behaviour to avoid infecting others.

Media outreach and education remains vital. Unfortunately, 30 years later, HIV is just not as sexy as it used to be, according to ‘Media reports of HIV can be part of the problem – or the solution’.

One solution: “amplify the voices of those infected by the disease and to increasingly report HIV as a story with medical, political, social, economic, cultural and religious aspects.”

These stories should “put a human face on a disease and at the same time, demystify the disease and erode stigma and fear associated with it.”

A personal story
HIV divides lesbians in South Africa’ tries to answer why the HIV-positive lesbian-rights activist Nomawabo Mahlungulu had stopped taking her medication. She died.

Gay and lesbian rights are enshrined in South Africa’s constitution, but 80 % of the population still “disapproves”. Some men even believe they can “cure” lesbianism through “corrective rape”, and often pass HIV in the process. When an infected lesbian seeks official help, she is often treated by police and medical workers with disdain – or worse. Meanwhile, she can also be ostracised by her lesbian community for going to the “other side”.

What choice would you make?

Have you heard or experienced a personal story about HIV/AIDS that opened your eyes? Please share by leaving a comment below or joining the discussion on Facebook.

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