HIV and AIDS as a Major Global Issue

published 25 October 2007 updated 25 October 2007

According to UNAIDS, HIV was discovered in 1981. Since then over 65 million people have been infected with the virus and 25 million have died of AIDS. It is estimated by UNAIDS that over 8,000 people are dying from AIDS every day. Although the numbers of people affected vary greatly from one country to another, this pandemic affects people in every country. It knows no borders.

Many factors contribute to why individuals become infected with HIV. It is not simply a matter of individual choices and behaviours, so individuals cannot be blamed for contracting HIV. Other factors include greater vulnerability to HIV due to economic conditions and poverty; lack of education and access to health care; and intense stigma and discrimination that prevent open discussion of HIV and AIDS, spread myths, create fear of other people, and hinder implementation and effectiveness of prevention strategies. Economic and social/cultural factors make females particularly vulnerable to HIV and AIDS. Financial dependence on men means that females may not be able to control when, with whom, and under what circumstances they have sex. In many cultures, females are not expected or allowed to discuss or make decisions about sex. It may not be acceptable for them to request or insist on using any form of protection. If females refuse sex or request a condom, they often risk abuse. In addition, biological factors make females more vulnerable to HIV; for example, females have a larger area of exposed mucous membrane where the virus can enter. Because of all these issues, it is important to work toward gender equity as a part of addressing the HIV and AIDS pandemic. HIV and AIDS have an overwhelming impact on millions of individuals around the world. HIV weakens the body, decreases its ability to fight off infections, and increases the chance of developing other illnesses. Being sick reduces a person’s ability to attend and participate in school. Although prevention, treatment, care, and support services are available, individuals cannot always access them because they are not universally accessible. There is also the impact of stigma and discrimination. HIV and AIDS involve personal issues such as sexual behaviours that are often considered taboo topics. Thus, HIV and AIDS becomes taboo and this perception precludes open discussion. When it becomes known that a person has HIV or AIDS, he or she is often shunned or taunted by others. As a result, many people living with HIV and AIDS have to live in silence and isolation. The fear generated by stigma and discrimination also makes some individuals afraid to get tested, find out whether they have HIV, and seek needed services. This means that the virus may progress much further before it is treated and continue to be spread through unsafe practises. Even when individuals do seek care, they may be denied it due to stigma and discrimination or lack of available services. They also may be denied education and employment. Although no one deserves to be treated unfairly because of having HIV and AIDS, that is exactly what is happening. In the education sector, individuals as well as school systems are seriously impacted. Many teachers are infected with HIV or have family members who are. If teachers and their families are able to receive the treatment, care, and support they need, the teachers are more likely to be able to continue working. However, due to stigma and discrimination, including possible consequences such as losing their job or being posted in a location far from family and services, teachers may be afraid to reveal their HIV status and seek services. If school systems create a supportive environment, develop anti-stigma and anti-discrimination policies, and provide access to treatment, care, and support services, teachers and their families have a better chance of staying healthy and employed. Then the schools will not lose as many teachers to providing care or to illness and death. It is to the great benefit of schools to make these changes because it is often not possible to replace all of the teachers who must leave school due to HIV and AIDS. When there are not enough teachers, learners have to move into other already overcrowded classrooms, and the remaining teachers are stressed by the numbers of learners they have to teach and the lack of support they receive. In addition, many learners have to stop going to school because they become ill from having HIV, have to take of a sick family member or younger siblings, or have to work to provide the family income. The result is a decrease in education and an increase in child labour. Girls are disproportionately affected and may end up in jobs where they are taken advantage of sexually. In addition, with millions of children now orphaned by AIDS, there are more child-headed households than ever. Through the EFAIDS programme, teachers’ unions around the world are taking action to address the HIV pandemic. Teachers are training thousands of their colleagues and learners to prevent HIV and challenge AIDS-related discrimination in an open environment where risk reduction, testing, treatment, and care can be discussed and addressed. They are also doing research, policy development, advocacy, and public awareness to gain proper training, support, treatment, and care for teachers. This ‘One Hour on AIDS’ Activity Kit for World AIDS Day is one of the contributions to this effort. World AIDS Day World AIDS Day was started by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in 1988 to connect people around the world to increase awareness of HIV and AIDS as a global issue, express solidarity, improve HIV and AIDS education and services, address AIDS-related stigma and discrimination, and raise funds for programmes that address HIV and AIDS. Focusing for one day each year on AIDS globally provides a unique chance to highlight the seriousness of the pandemic. Over the years, World AIDS Day has become such a large commemoration that in many countries, special events and activities continue for a week or more. Each year World AIDS Day has focused on a particular theme. The overall theme for 2005 – 2010 is to ensure that policymakers keep their promises related to HIV and AIDS, especially providing universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support, services by 2010. The specific focus for 2007 and 2008 is “leadership” at all levels. The call is for all sectors of society, rather than just governments, to provide leadership on HIV and AIDS. These sectors include individuals, families, schools, and communities, locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.