"On World AIDS day the global community acknowledges HIV/AIDS as a larger issue for all humanity and not just for people who are living with it. This is a day that highlights the importance of life without hate, fear, stigma and discrimination”, says Ali a young man living with HIV in Lahore. "The global community also acknowledges that HIV is not only a health issue, but more importantly a human rights one”, he emphasizes.
Each year World AIDS day is observed on December 1st; to commemorate the more than 39 million lives claimed by HIV/AIDS across the world. It is also a day for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV and to show their support for people living with HIV. The first World AIDS Days was commemorated on December 1st, 1988. This day also highlights that in the fight against HIV there is urgent work that still needs to be done. For past several years the international efforts to highlight HIV/AIDS awareness were focused on achieving the common goal of, “Getting to Zero: Zero new HIV infections. Zero deaths from AIDS-related illness. Zero discrimination.” But the rapidly deteriorating funding for HIV programs, ideological restrictions on research efforts, improper prevention techniques and endless stigma and discrimination proved to be major roadblocks in the achievement of Getting to Zero. Now in 2015, the discussion around HIV is focused on "Think Positive: Rethink HIV”. World Aids Day this year is all about getting people to rethink outdated stereotypes, declassify myths and be positive about HIV.
In Pakistan, an estimated 94,000 people are living with HIV. But this number could be much higher as a lot of people in the country do not have access to screening services and are probably living in ignorance of their HIV status. "In the fight against HIV/AIDS in Pakistan the biggest challenge is that we have no data available for people living with HIV/AIDS. All we have are estimates that do not represent the full picture, says Rahman an activist associated with an NGO working on awareness and prevention of HIV/AIDS. "For our intervention plans to be more effective and efficient we need more research”, he adds further.
According to the UNAIDS website for Pakistan adults aged 15 and above are at an increased risk of getting the virus. Moreover, the mortality rate from HIV/AIDS in Pakistan saw an increase of 11 % between 2000 and 2013. During the same time period rate of new HIV/AIDS infections each year for Pakistan was 15 %. This seems extremely problematic when we look at the global trends for new infections and mortality which were declining. A report published by the UN in 2013 also highlighted that new cases of HIV were on rise in Pakistan making it one of the only two countries in the world where rate of new HIV infections is uncontrolled and on the rise. Most of the prevention efforts and Public AIDS control programs in the country are targeted at Injecting Drug Users and sex workers in the country. Public prevention programs have yet to include the general population who if not more; than are at the same level of risk as the sex workers. The HIV/AIDS national surveys and public prevention programs previously did not include males who have sex with males and transgender people who are universally acknowledged as two high risk populations. This was changed only this year when after much advocacy and deliberation by community activists these two groups were included in National AIDS Strategy lll. Because without including the key affected populations into their prevention efforts the national and provincial AIDS control programs cannot halt the spread of HIV in Pakistan.
The transmission of the HIV virus is tied to specific high-risk behaviors and has nothing to do with a person’s sexual orientation. It is not uncommon for people to blame gender non-conforming people for increased prevalence rates of HIV in society, but the real culprit is the state-sponsored homophobia and bigotry which drive them underground. The oppressed are always blamed for their problems by the oppressors. Societal norms, dominant cultural practices and religious beliefs are responsible for driving sexual minority groups underground due to which they are marginalized from HIV/AIDS related prevention efforts and have limited or no access to such programs. Because of this they are at a higher risk of being infected with HIV/AIDS. No logical person would willingly want to contract HIV and gender non-conforming people are no different. Numerous research studies have proved that reduced stigma and discrimination always leads to a reduction in the infection rates.
Extraordinary advances in the field of medicine have made it possible for HIV-positive people to live long and lead healthy lives. But in the absence of a cure each year tens of thousands of new infections occur. A majority of the world’s population exposed to the HIV virus continues to live in either ignorance or shame about their HIV status. Only through leading by example can we improve the lives of those living with HIV. We can get tested to learn our HIV status and show care and support towards those who have already been tested positive. Together, we can slow the spread of HIV and better care for those affected by it. "Ending AIDS epidemic as part of sustainable development goal by 2030, cannot be achieved in Pakistan without decriminalizing the key affected communities in this country”, says Qasim Iqbal an activist heading a national level organization involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS. As an HIV positive individual himself, Qasim went on to say, "On World AIDS Day, we need to remind ourselves and let the world know as well that we are not dying from HIV. We are living with it!”