Those charged with writing world AIDS day messages have a surprising array of options. They can honour our fallen – that’s important. Paying tribute to those living with HIV is also a worthy goal. Our messages can be reflective of the past, taking stock of where we are now, or aspirational. Inspirational too. All these topics I’ve addressed in the past.
I’ve never done a celebratory World AIDS Day message before. But then 2017 has been no ordinary year. It has been a year of personal transformations. It has been a year of great news for many of us and a challenge for others. It has been a year when a community movement blossomed. It has been a year where people living with HIV led rather than followed. It has been a year where we talked science a lot – in this case around the risk of transmission – and people got it. It has been a year where people living with HIV became the experts. It has been a year which gave us a tool to finally put a real dent in HIV stigma, to access for treatment, to feel safe again. In import, it has been a year which matched 1996, the year antiretroviral therapies were introduced. It has been the year of Undetectable = Untransmittable, the year of U=U, the year of #uequalsu. Take your pick.
True, the story of U=U began in 2015 or much earlier if you consider the parade of markers which led to it – Canadian hero Dr. Julio Montaner first talking treatment as prevention (TasP) in 2006, the dismissed but since repatriated Swiss statement of 2008, then HPTN 052, then PARTNER, then Opposites Attract – all pages in our history now. And so will be the story of Bruce Richman, the New York City first time AIDS activist (yes, really!) who led U=U both literally and figuratively onto the world stage. 2017 was the year that the campaign took off, here and abroad.
"It’s been an emotional ride for those closely connected to the campaign. Those rejections continue to this day. Dullards and denialists haunt social media in particular. By any standards, though, U=U is winning in ways we have never seen before."
Did it ever! People living with HIV have embraced the U=U campaign in China, in Estonia, in Singapore, in the Ukraine, in Vietnam, in Uganda, in Zimbabwe. The campaign has 510 community partner organizations in over 65 countries. U=U t-shirt designs are legion. You can buy a U=U smartphone case or a U=U ball cap. This, simply put, is unprecedented.
Just yesterday the Government of Canada came on board. Their World AIDS Day statement said, “We have known for some time that ART is critical for maintaining and improving the health of a person living with HIV. It has also become evident that when a person living with HIV is on ART, takes their medications consistently as prescribed and maintains a confirmed suppressed viral load, there is effectively no risk of their passing the infection on to their sex partners. “ The government’s statement went on to congratulate those working on the U=U campaign. It doesn’t get much better than this!
Not that it hasn’t been a bumpy ride. I’ve seen the challenges, the denials, the rejections and - yes- the tears, firsthand. It’s been an emotional ride for those closely connected to the campaign. Those rejections continue to this day. Dullards and denialists haunt social media in particular. By any standards, though, U=U is winning in ways we have never seen before.
It’s true that 2017 has seen other reasons to celebrate. PrEP has emerged as a viable option for many. The number of new HIV diagnoses in some countries – sadly not Canada – is declining, often dramatically. A slew of countries – again sadly, Canada is not amongst them – can boast having reached 90-90-90 targets. Optimistic souls, and mine is one, see the end of the epidemic in sight, even without a cure. All these things are good. But nothing compares. I’d argue, to the miracle of U=U.
That U=U both transforms lives and has transformed our response to HIV is unquestionable. On World AIDS Day 2017, go celebrate it.
Award-winning blogger Bob Leahy first made his social media mark a decade ago on LiveJournal.com where there are still to this day almost 3,000 entries of his available to be read. He was a featured blogger on Ontario’s HIVStigma.com campaign, along with PositiveLite.com founder Brian Finch. He joined PositiveLite.com at its inception in 2009 and became it's Editor a year later.
Born in the UK, Bob’s background is in corporate banking, which he gladly left in 1994, after being diagnosed with HIV the previous year. He has chaired the board of PARN (Peterborough AIDS Resource Network) and has been an executive board member of both the Ontario HIV Treatment Network (OHTN) and the Canadian AIDS Society (CAS). He was inducted in to the Ontario AIDS Network’s Honour Roll in 2005. Bob is currently a member of Ontario’s GMSH (Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance). He also writes for TheBody.com.
In 2012, Bob was honoured with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal for his work and commitment to HIV/AIDS in Canada.
Bob continues to write for this site while in the Positivelite.Com editor’s seat, with a particular interest in HIV prevention, theatre and the arts in general. He is accredited media for a number of Toronto theatres. He lives in Warkworth, Ontario with his partner of thirty-two years and three dogs.