July 24, 2014

Sharing stories from around the world on living with HIV

Written by By Catherine Graue

This article originally appeared on the Australia Network News. View the original post here.

About 12,000 of the world’s leading HIV scientists, policymakers and activists are in Melbourne this week for the 2014 international AIDS conference.

The conference is looking at what progress is being made globally to manage and eradicate the virus.

Sub-Saharan Africa continues to experience the world’s most serious HIV epidemic but closer to home in the Asia Pacific, about 5 million people are HIV-positive.

Australian Deanna Blegg is one of those, diagnosed two decades ago when she was just 24 and travelling around the world.

“I felt ugly and ashamed,” she said. “I just felt really, really dirty.”

In 1994, HIV was a virtual death sentence – anywhere in the world.

“I was told at the time that if I survived five years, I’d been a long-term survivor.

“At that time, there was no medication available for HIV.”

But just two years later, Deanna’s prognosis received a lifesaving boost when antiretroviral treatments were made available.

“It’s because of that medication I’m here, alive and well,” she said.

Treatment made a difference

Twenty years on, Deanna’s constantly pushing her body to the extreme by competing in some of the world’s toughest “obstacle” races – and winning.

“I just love to see how far I can go and see what my body can do,” she said.

“The feeling of achievement, success, that you can beat obstacles.

“And living with HIV was another obstacle in my life and to conquer that and move forward and conquer other challenges really appeals to me.”

But Deanna knows she is one of the fortunate ones – born in the so-called lucky country.

“If you’re going to be living with HIV, Australia’s one of the best countries to be living in,” she said.

“The medical services are fantastic, the education programs are wonderful, the access to medication.”

Despite that, HIV rates in Australia are at their highest levels in 20 years, with more than 26,000 people currently living with the virus.

But that’s just a fraction of the 4.8 million people across the Asia Pacific region, three quarters of whom live in India, China and Indonesia.

Much of the region has experienced high rates of success in the fight against new infections in recent years with the rate falling by about 50 per cent in several South East Asian countries, including Vietnam and Thailand.

It’s a very different story though for Pakistan and the Philippines, with UNAIDS estimating the rate of infections has soared triple digits over eight years.

In the Philippines, new HIV infections increased by 425 per cent between 2005 and 2013.

“In the case of the Philippines, it’s men who have sex with men, and injecting drug users,” the UNAIDS Asia Pacific Director Steve Kraus explained.

“They have had an explosion of injecting drug use that’s been mixed into the gay population.”

Filipino man Inad Rendon, 29, is one of those.

He only discovered he was HIV positive when he was hospitalised by an AIDS related illness three years ago.

Having lost half his body weight, the doctor’s prognosis was bleak.

“The doctor actually said to my father, you need to prepare yourselves because your son might be dying,” Inad recounted.

Lack of information

Inad had already had an HIV test two years earlier after contracting another sexually transmitted infection.

“I did not get my results,” he laughs.

“I was afraid to get my results… There’s a lack of information, terrible lack of information and attention to HIV.

“People don’t know where to access the services, they don’t even know the importance of accessing the services.”

Experts warn that the lack of easy access to services and information is hampering serious progress in tackling HIV in some countries, including the Philippines.

“No one should die from HIV because they don’t know their status,” Mr Kraus said.

“No one should die from HIV because a law says that what you’ve done is immoral and wrong.

“We put that individual’s health at risk and we put the health of the public at risk when we take that approach.”

Antiretroviral drugs are producing significant results, helping to reduce the number of AIDS-related deaths.

High quality generic drugs have brought the cost of treating a person with HIV in much of Asia down to just $US100 a year.

But across the region, only a third of those people who need to access the life saving drugs are currently doing so.

Mr Kraus says the epidemic can be reversed, or even stopped, if the rate of people on treatment is at 80 per cent.

“Thailand has clearly worked out if they invest $10 million this year, and over the next 3 to 5 years, they can drive down their new infections below a thousand infections every year.

“Right now they have about 9,500 and they believe they can end AIDS by 2030 by making these investments now.”