Don't forget it's 'World' AIDS Day


World AIDS Day Banner Image

As a focus of fear and stigma, Ebola has replaced AIDS in Western consciousness. So World Aids Day offers an occasion for reflection on the human lives affected by HIV, on what needs to be done to address the spread of HIV in Australia and also on the devastation caused by AIDS elsewhere. 

When its threat and extent were first recognised, AIDS was difficult to address because it carried a double stigma. It was a mysterious, lethal disease that caused great suffering and noticeable physical symptoms, and led to the death of many who suffered from it. There was no cure for it. It carried the stigma associated with fear. 

The spread of AIDS was also associated with unprotected sex between men and sharing injecting needles, and so carried the cultural and religious taboos associated with that conduct. It carried the stigma associated with sexuality and addiction. Stigma makes for silence, because to reveal infection or sexual orientation is likely to bring exclusion and discrimination. Silence makes for ignorance as no one talks about the reality of the disease and its transmission. Ignorance contributes to the spread of the disease among vulnerable people. 

In Australia, AIDS receded in public consciousness as more effective antiretroviral medicines were developed and became more widely available, so preventing HIV from developing into AIDS. Public education about the causes and the ways of preventing the disease were also effective, particularly when the education was undertaken by community groups whose members were more liable to infection. The stigma associated with fear and with sexuality was challenged and discrimination diminished. Stories of men caring heroically for their AIDS infected partners became more familiar to the public. 

In Australia the goal of the Day is to reach a point where there are no new HIV infections, no discrimination and no AIDS related deaths. That seems theoretically attainable. But the reality is that the number of people diagnosed of HIV have increased over recent years. So the need for more public awareness and education among vulnerable groups remains. Stigma, too, which is notoriously difficult to overcome, needs to continue to be addressed so that no one will be reluctant to seek diagnosis and treatment of the HIV virus.

But World Aids Day encourages us also to think beyond Australia. Africa remains the continent most afflicted by AIDS. Even there the number of HIV cases diagnosed has declined in recent years, but the suffering of people with AIDS, their families and of communities is incalculable. And in contrast to Australia where AIDS is mostly contracted by men, in Africa it affects women. Of adolescent and young adults diagnosed with HIV, some 70% are female. 

In Africa cultural and economic factors are also significant. The fear of AIDS and the stigma associated with it discourage many people from seeking advice and help. The need for men to live far away from home in order to find work, too, contributes to infection. And poverty drives many women into sex work to support their children. 

As with other conditions that present as medical problems, HIV in Africa is also a problem of fairness. It makes us ask what people in wealthier nations owe to those in poorer nations, what attention governments ought give to the most disadvantaged, what respect between sexes entails, and what values should guide both economic and personal life in all nations. AIDS is correctly diagnosed as an illness of the body. It also invites diagnosis of the spirit.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Image courtesy YEAH/

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, AIDS, HIV, homosexuality, drug abuse, Africa, development, health



submit a comment

Existing comments

It's difficult to think of a more heart-breaking situation than to be battling a life-threatening illness, and then to be stigmatised because of the nature of that illness. There is still so much prejudice associated with homosexuality, not least within the church. And addiction carries with it unfair connotations of weakness. The situation is dire in African countries and wealthier nations like Australia could do more to help. I'm sure there would be inspirational individuals from Australia helping in Africa but it takes governments to make the vital difference.
Pam | 28 November 2014

"UNAIDS wrote that the Church "provides support to millions of people living with HIV around the world" and that "Statistics from the Vatican in 2012 indicate that Catholic Church-related organizations provide approximately a quarter of all HIV treatment, care, and support throughout the world and run more than 5,000 hospitals, 18,000 dispensaries, and 9,000 orphanages, many involved in AIDS-related activities." UNAIDS co-operates closely with the Church on critical issues such as the elimination of new HIV infections in children, and keeping their mothers alive, as well as increasing access to antiretroviral medication.[3] Caritas Internationalis is the Church's main international aid and development body, operating in over 200 countries and territories, and is among the strategic partners of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)".[wiki]
Father John George | 28 November 2014

If someone drives recklessly on the roads and causes an accident thereby, they are obliged to pay for the property damages they have caused. The notion that the wealth of uninvolved citizens should be co-opted to subsidise those reckless drivers in the fulfilling of their obligations thus incurred would be abhorrent to us all - not only because of the inherent injustice, but because of the moral hazard engendered. Yet if someone, with full awareness of consequences, engages in reckless activity (sexual or otherwise) by which they or their partners contract diseases requiring expensive treatment, it is the taxpayer ultimately who must foot much of their bill! This is an equally abhorrent situation, in terms of justice and moral hazard. Given the saturation of information down to primary school levels, it would be naïve in the extreme to suppose that the increase in HIV infection amongst sexually active gay men in Australia can be put down to an increasing lack of awareness as to how the HIV is transmitted. Let’s be honest. Sexually active homosexual men know that taxpayer-subsidized drugs have now stemmed the lethal or seriously debilitating consequences of their lifestyle, and are thus choosing to engage in the particular variations of activity that give them the greatest pleasure even as they maximise the chances of infection. Any serious attempt to halt the recent increase in HIV/AIDS in Australia will, inter alia, rightly stigmatize this mindset for the utter disgrace that it is. The same judgement, of course, applies to promiscuous heterosexuals in an analogous scenario.
HH | 29 November 2014

HH, I am one of those "SOMEONE'S" you refer to who has contracted this horrible disease. Both your opinion and my condition share something in common - we both remain anonymous.
AURELIUS | 01 December 2014

Aurelius, in your response to HH's post, I cannot see any challenge to his argument. I think the analogy between reckless driving and reckless sexual behaviour was perfectly valid. I must confess that I am not clear on what you were trying to say.
Marg | 02 December 2014

Sorry to hear that Aurelius & I'll keep you in my prayers. I'm not sure how it touches on my point that anyone who knowingly engages in reckless behaviour and then demands that others pay for the ensuing damage needs to be stigmatized as the leech that they are. Stigmatizing is a powerful form of social control which can be used for ill ... such as branding someone a "homophobe" simply because they believe homosexual acts are inimical to human flourishing, or a "denier" because they don't believe that fossil fuel use is causing catastrophic global warming. ... or good ... eg "Drink, Drive, Bloody Idiot" campaigns. Our Lord did a fair bit of it, notably in the Sermon on the Mount.
HH | 02 December 2014

Marge, this comments column is neither a confessional nor a counselling advice forum. HIV is transmitted in many ways and circumstances and in the context of Christian charity and compassion we are called not to judge as so that we are not judged for our own actions.
AURELIUS | 02 December 2014


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up