File picture: Anton Favilla/AP
Do you know your HIV status or do you just assume that you are not carrying the virus?

As South Africa joins hundreds other countries around the world celebrating World Aids Day today, our country remains one with the highest number of HIV cases and AIDS-related deaths, despite the wide variety of public information and continuously improving treatment options.
 
With an estimated one in five South Africans with HIV unaware of their status, there are likely thousands more living across the Rainbow Nation that don't know they are infected. These people are missing out on life-saving AIDS medicines, and may unknowingly be passing the infection on to their partners.
 
According to Avert, a global outlet on information and education on HIV and AIDS, South Africa has the highest HIV epidemic in the world with 7.1 million people living with HIV. HIV prevalence is high among the general population at 18.9%, 270,000 new infections every year, 110,000 AIDS related deaths, 61% adults on antiretroviral, anti-HIV drugs or HIV antiviral drugs and 58% on on antiretroviral treatment.
 
To put this into context, it is important to understand the global statistics: According to the United Nations, 36.7 million people globally live with HIV; 1.8 million people become infected every year, 1 million people die from AIDS-related illnesses annually; 76.1 million people have become infected with HIV since the start of the epidemic; 35 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic in 1983. 
 
KNOW YOUR STATUS
 
We cannot ignore these staggering number of people that HIV and AIDS still affects. 
 
To mark the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day, UNAIDS has adopted the theme, “Know your status”.
 
Worlds AIDS Day falls on December 1 each year, and each year is an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV to show their support for people living with HIV and to commemorate the people who have died. 
 
The theme "Know your status," emphasizes that everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, economic class, or educational level, can be an important part of the solution to the HIV epidemic across our nation.
 
So how can we work together to reduce the pandemic? By getting tested to know our status. 

The truth is a person may feel perfectly healthy for several years after becoming infected with HIV, and may be at risk of passing the virus on to others. The only way to know for certain if an individual is infected with HIV is to be tested.

Routine HIV testing for all sexually active people is critical. It's the first step in controlling the HIV pandemic.
 
In summary, here are four things you can do to help reduce the pandemic:

* Get tested for HIV. Knowing your status saves lives!

* Speak out against stigma, homophobia, racism, and other forms of discrimination associated with HIV and AIDS.

* Get educated about the basic facts on HIV and AIDS.

* Get treated if living with HIV or newly diagnosed.
 
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ON AIDS AND HIV

So what do you need to know to save lives: What is HIV or AIDS? How does one get HIV/AIDS? What are the signs of HIV? How can one get tested for HIV? What can one do if he or she tests positive for HIV? 
 
According to health literature and AIDS experts, HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, is the late stage of HIV infection, when a person's immune system is severely damaged and has difficulty fighting diseases and certain cancers. 
 
A person can become infected with HIV by having unprotected sex with a person who has HIV/AIDS or sharing needles or syringes ("drug works") with someone who has HIV/AIDS. 
 
People can't tell if an individual has HIV just by looking at him or her. An HIV test is the only way to know for sure if a person has HIV. 
 
HIV testing is available at local health department and pharmacies. It involves providing blood samples.
 
Abstinence is the only absolute way to prevent HIV infection. Individuals can protect themselves by using latex condoms each time they participate in sexual activity. Condoms are available at no cost at any HIV testing site. 
 
Individuals who test positive can receive guidance and assistance from health care counsellors. 
 
GET TESTED
 
But there's one thing we all need to be talking about a lot more than we do: HIV testing. And there's a simple reason: Far too many people, black and white don't know their HIV status, even though they could be at risk.
 
Testing is critical both for people who are HIV-positive and - negative. Pre- and post-test counselling gives HIV-negative people the tools to take fewer risks and avoid becoming infected. For those who are positive, testing is the essential first step in getting medical treatment and ongoing support to help them maintain safer behaviours. 

NEW TRENDS

The response to HIV and AIDS pandemic relies on preventive strategies where information on modes of transmission are provided to enable people identify and avoid risky behaviour that could expose them to infection.
Indeed, having accurate knowledge about transmission and prevention is important for avoiding HIV infection and ending the stigma and discrimination of infected and affected 
The treatment of AIDS has evolved and new trends are emerging. THE advent of multi-drug treatment has been hailed as a milestone in the fight against AIDS.

For example, nowadays there is one tablet for most newly diagnosed people and it’s so much cheaper with new generics coming on the market, costing well below R500 per month.

We have also been helped by the World Health Organisation’s recommendations encouraging all countries to initiate treatment in adults living with HIV when their CD4 cell count falls to 500 cells/more less - when their immune systems are still strong. 
The previous WHO recommendation, set in 2010, was to offer treatment at 350 CD4 cells/more less.
 
Currently there are about 22 drugs on the market for treatment of HIV.  Anti-retroviral are the most widely used. They are not a cure, but they can stop people from becoming ill for many years, according to experts. 
 
WHO has based its recommendation on evidence that treating people with HIV earlier, with safe, affordable, and easier-to-manage medicines can both keep them healthy and lower the amount of virus in the blood, which reduces the risk of passing it to someone else. 
 
Fortunately our government has integrated these changes within their national HIV policies, and has also backed them up with the necessary resources. 
 
Therefore with people starting treatment earlier and earlier, not waiting for CD4 count to be low, people are well for most of their lives and reach the viral load suppression faster. When the viral load is suppressed, they are living the same lives as everyone and have no virus to spread. 

Lastly, we are also seeing more and more work to discover a cure for HIV. Much of it happening here in our shores.

Therefore, learning your HIV status is the most important step you can take to protect yourself, your partners and communities.

As our country remains the epicentre of the epidemic, it is important to know your status. By knowing your HIV status, you can protect yourself and your partners. 
Avoiding risky sexual behaviour, using condoms, and discussing your HIV status with your partners are important to protect yourself and others and to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Knowing your HIV status can save your life and others.

* Dr Lungi Nyathi is Executive Director for Health Management at AfroCentric Health Group, owners of owners of Medscheme, Aid for Aids, a 20 year old HIV management company, and other health care companies.