By Daniel J. McLaughlin
World AIDS Day has reached its 30th year, and the illness is still claiming the lives of thousands of people each year. In 2017, 940,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses, raising the death toll to 35.4 million people since the epidemic began in the 1980s.
There are roughly 36.9 million people globally who live with HIV, the virus that leads to the condition - in the UK alone, there are 101,000 people living with HIV. Around 1.8 million people became newly infected with the virus last year. These people face stigma and discrimination every day because of their illness.
HIV is a virus that attacks the body's immune system, specifically certain cells that help it fight off infections. If it is left untreated, HIV decreases the number of CD4 cells (a kind of T cell) in the body. This makes the infected person vulnerable to other infections. The virus can destroy so many of these cells that the body cannot fight off infections and disease anymore - potentially leading to severe illness or death.
HIV can also progress to AIDS. "People with AIDS have such badly damaged immune systems that they become susceptible to opportunistic infections — infections that people with normally functioning immune systems don’t get," ABC News explains. If the person does not receive treatment for AIDS, they may survive for about three years.
The virus is spread through certain body fluids, which include: blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. A person who is HIV-positive can transmit the virus through anal, vaginal and oral sex. It can also be transmitted by sharing contaminated needles when using drugs. Mothers can also pass it on to their children during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Know Your Status". Only 75 per cent of people living with HIV are aware of their status, meaning that that 9.4 million people do not know that they are HIV-positive.
Deondre Moore, an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, told CNN why knowing your status is crucial. Moore, who was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 19, said: "If you know your status, that empowers you. That protects you, that protects the next person, and it helps you to navigate and know what to do next." It is recommended that anyone who has unsafe sex or shares drug needles should get tested at least once a year.
World AIDS Day - held on December 1 every year - was founded by James W. Bunn and Thomas Netter in 1987. According to Pink News, the purpose of the awareness day is "to educate people about HIV to reduce further people from catching the illness, to reduce the stigma surrounding those who live with it, and to raise money for research".
If you want to get tested, you can request to have a free HIV test at your GP surgery or sexual health clinic. The doctor will take a sample of your blood or saliva, and send it off for testing.