Lovin Malta takes a look at the local stats on AIDS and HIV on World AIDS Day
The first day of December marks the opening of the festive season. A time where people are mostly nicer to each other, they eat a little more, drink a little more, and generally stop to take stock of everything they've achieved in the eleven months preceding. Have I done enough with myself? Could I have been kinder, more thoughtful, healthier?
December 1st also marks World AIDS Day. Since 1988, the world has been tasked with spreading awareness about the disease, and solidarity to those who have suffered because of it. But here in Malta it rarely surfaces in the everyman's household conversation. Even the most well-meaning Maltese person is running on an information deficit as to how AIDS affects us locally.
So maybe for just one hour, on this one day – before we go back to thinking about everything else – we can look at where Malta and AIDS stand right now.
"This year fifty-eight new cases of HIV were reported this year. There are now about 350 people reported to be HIV+"
World AIDS Day is one in only eight official global public health campaigns by the World Health Organisation. All around the world heads of state, governments, NGOs, and miscellaneous VIPs use their celebrity and status to influence the reach of the awareness campaign.
At the time of publication Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had not tweeted a message of solidarity or awareness as part of World AIDS Day, nor had the Leader of Opposition Simon Busuttil.
President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca tweeted and shared an Instagram post highlighting the issue of the rise of HIV.
World AIDS Day is an opportunity to unite our efforts and address the rise in reported HIV… https://t.co/ckzO9kB239— Marie-Louise Coleiro (@presidentMT) December 1, 2016
The Minister for Heath Chris Fearne retweeted a tweet by @EURO2017:
Maltese students, on the other hand, are working much harder to do their part to raise awareness about AIDS and the HIV virus in Malta. The Malta Medical Student Association (MMSA) organised events between the 23rd and the 26th of November both on campus and within local communities to bring to light the facts and figure on this disease within our shores.
Their events included talks on the University of Malta campus, educational games on campus, an outreach buscade, a candle vigil, and an awareness campaign about testing for all sexual transmitted diseases.
There's a difference between AIDS and HIV – some people might know, people might not, some people might pretend to know but have to look it up (like I just have). HIV is a virus that may cause an infection, but AIDS is a condition or a syndrome. Being infected with HIV can lead to the development of AIDS, which develops when HIV has caused serious damage to the immune system.
Some HIV+ patients may take up to a decade before experiencing any noticeable symptoms; in the advanced stages of the disease many patients may experience a higher risk of acquiring infections and developing cancers.
HIV is transmitted via exchange of bodily fluids namely semen, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, breast milk, and blood hence the risk to intravenous drug users and patients exposed to infected blood transfusions; it cannot be acquired via tears, sweat, saliva, mosquitos, public toilets and air or water.
"In Europe 1 in 7 [cases] remain undiagnosed"
So what exactly are we not talking about?
The amount of HIV and AIDS cases in Malta remains a mystery to most. It's one of those things that as a Maltese person you believe will never happen to you – like getting mugged or ending up homeless. But the disease does exist in Malta, we just don't know that much about it.
It began in 1986, when twenty-eight haemophilia patients were infected via a HIV and Hepatitis C contaminated blood transfusion. Twenty-one of these patients succumbed to the diseases. Since then the National Blood Bank follows a very rigid protocol of testing for all blood transmissible diseases with the use of strict screening proteins and in-depth interviews with blood donors to ensure that no blood transfusions are infected. Accordingly, high-risk individuals are barred from donating blood. These include highly promiscuous persons, migrants from countries affected by the Zika virus, UK expatriates who lived there during the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy epidemic and men who have sex with men (MSM) amongst others.
The lifetime ban on blood donation by MSM is currently being discussed by a government-appointed technical committee and thus this decision could be relaxed to a 12-month deferral. But that's a whole other kettle of fish we don't even know a fraction of enough about.
This year fifty-eight new cases of HIV were reported, 66% of which were MSM. Over the past five years the disease has been steadily on the rise. There are now about 350 people reported to be HIV+ in Malta. However, these are only people who have been tested and are aware they are affected. The number of untested HIV+ victims is unknown – although in Europe 1 in 7 remain undiagnosed, so maybe we can compare. Maybe not. The layperson (me) certainly doesn't know enough.
"HIV’s progression can now be controlled with antiretroviral therapy (ART). The new daily single dose/tablet variant is not yet available in Malta."
Use condoms used with a water based lubricant during sex to protect yourself from STIs. Anyone, regardless of age or nationality, can book a free confidential and anonymous appointment at the GU Clinic at Mater Dei on 21 227981 for counselling, testing, diagnosis and treatments of STIs including HIV.
HIV’s progression can now be controlled with antiretroviral therapy (ART). In Malta triple therapy is still in use where up to fourteen drugs a day are administered to patients. The new daily single dose/tablet variant is not yet available in Malta. Thanks to ART, HIV+ patients may now expect a near-average life expectancy and a decent quality of life.
This video, produced by the MMSA, provides information on how you can get tested anonymously in Malta.
World AIDS Day is important, and we should start to think about it more. So if you have stopped to ask yourself today how you could have been kinder, more thoughtful, and healthier in 2016, make this your answer:
By keeping myself more informed and sensitive to AIDS and HIV and other health problems that people around me could be battling with. By practicing safe sex. And by getting regularly tested for STIs and encouraging my peers to do so.
Lovin Malta thanks the MMSA for the facts and stats provided for this article.