Published in The Hindu on November 15, 2011
If discrimination against people infected with HIV continues to be a major problem even today, despite innumerable initiatives to remove the stigma attached to it since the first case was reported in 1981, it must be remembered that the situation was scary in the early 1990s. It called for clear-sightedness and guts even to get tested for the virus then. And it required enormous moral courage and strength of character to reveal one’s HIV-positive status to the immediate family, not to mention the public. Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, the 32-year-old towering basketball legend who was at the peak of his career, did a lot to change this. He let the world know of his infection on November 7, 1991. That single act served as a powerful catalyst, removing misconceptions about the disease — that it was restricted to gays, drug users, and sex workers. Overnight, Johnson became a global ambassador for millions of distressed folk. The Magic Johnson Foundation, which he created the same year he was diagnosed with HIV, has played a pivotal role in spreading awareness, particularly about the need to get tested at the earliest. Twenty years after the disclosure, an equally important message comes from the man himself — that being infected with the virus does not mean a death sentence and that the progression from HIV to full-blown AIDS can be delayed with the help of medicines, a nutritious diet, and regular exercise.
Easy access to efficacious medicines has played a vital role in reducing the number of deaths from HIV in the low- and middle-income countries — from 2.1 million in 2004 to 1.8 million in 2009. According to the 2010 UNAIDS Global Report, an additional 1.2 million people received antiretroviral therapy in 2009, bringing the total number of beneficiaries to 5.2 million. The spotlight is however on the 25 per cent drop in the number of new infections in a year in 33 countries, many of them in the sub-Saharan Africa. India, along with a few other Asian countries, has witnessed the same rate of drop in incidence. But despite a reduction in incidence level, global prevalence has continued to increase. At the end of 2009, it stood at nearly 33 million, up from 28.6 million in 2001. The reason: a reduced number of deaths due to increased longevity of people living with HIV. For a variety of reasons, there has been lull in AIDS awareness campaigns in India in recent years. It may not be incorrect to state that a reduction in the incidence level in India was achieved mainly through awareness programmes. There is no room for complacency, as any negative change in people’s behaviour can quickly alter the course of the epidemic.