However, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is not over yet. The latest data on HIV/AIDS in Belgium shows that in 2018, there were 882 new HIV diagnoses. This is equivalent to 2.4 new HIV diagnoses per day2. Currently, approximately 19.213 people are HIV positive in Belgium; that is 1.7 people per 1.000 inhabitants.3Within this group it is estimated that 9.1 percent (1.747 people), are not even aware of their HIV positive status4.
While scientific innovation has dramatically improved the lives of people living with HIV, the estimated 19.213 people in Belgium still face HIV related stigma and discrimination, which pose a serious challenge to their quality of life.
According to a recent survey looking at the quality of life (QoL) of people living with HIV in Flanders, Belgium, several elements related to QoL have been identified as particularly critical and requiring measures to address them: mental health and social support of PLHIV are impaired, especially in recent diagnosis, and HIV-related stigma and discrimination is still widespread. On the other hand, the survey also demonstrated the strengths of PLHIV, including positive coping and self-image5.
A Gilead Sciences Belgium campaign to fight stigma around HIV in Belgium
Gilead Sciences Belgium is deeply committed to changing the current situation in Belgium and dismantling stigma and discrimination around HIV through collaborative efforts with all relevant stakeholders.
That is why in late November 2019, ahead of World AIDS Day, Gilead Sciences Belgium officially launched an awareness campaign to convey the important message that “Undetectable = Untransmittable” (U=U)6. Today, existing HIV treatments can reduce the viral load to undetectable levels, leading to a close to zero risk of onward transmission. Awareness that “undetectable equals untransmittable” is critical in the fight to end HIV related stigma. Indeed, having an undetectable viral load due to effective treatment means that people living with HIV can live normal lives. They can have children**. They cannot transmit HIV sexually to others*. By understanding the concept of U=U, the widespread sense of fear and anxiety around HIV can be removed.
This important message was the focus of the Gilead Sciences Belgium awareness campaign. During the weekend preceding 2019 World AIDS Day, Gilead Sciences Belgium employees, together with representatives from local patient organisations and the medical community, distributed 15,000 re-usable tote bags to the general public in seven shopping centers and several HIV reference centers across Belgium. Over 50 volunteers stood up against stigma towards HIV and conveyed the important message that U=U*.
As part of the campaign, Gilead Sciences Belgium created awareness videos, shared digitally over a period of three weeks through social media channels. The campaign will continue being rolled out throughout 2020.
With adequate information and stakeholders’ collaboration, society can fight HIV.
At Gilead we believe that together, we can stop the virus. And by acting together, we can put an end to stigma around HIV.
*Disclaimer: While effective viral suppression with antiretroviral therapy has been proven to substantially reduce the risk of sexual transmission, a residual risk cannot be excluded. CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) states that there is effectively no risk of sexual transmission of HIV in individuals with an undetectable viral load.
** People living with HIV who are planning to have children should speak with their doctor.