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Five things to know about World AIDS Day

Every year on December 1, people across the world come together to commemorate World AIDS Day. As well as being an opportunity to promote awareness of the disease and raise money to fund research into it, World AIDS Day is a time to remember the people who have died from AIDS-related illness, and support people living with the disease.

There’s a lot more public information about HIV and AIDS out there today than there was in the 1980s, when less was known about the virus, but we can still learn more. And what better time to start than December 1?

What are HIV and AIDS?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and it’s a condition that can cause AIDS (which stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). But the two are not the same thing. People living with HIV do not necessarily have AIDS, and many take antiretroviral treatments every day to prevent the virus from advancing into AIDS. Because of these treatments, people living with HIV can manage the condition and live just as long and healthy a life as those without it.

I thought HIV and AIDS were only issues in the ’80s!

While treatments in the decades after the AIDS pandemic broke out in the 1980s have made HIV more manageable, more than 35 million people have died of HIV or AIDS since then, and around 37 million people live with the virus today. We’ve come a long way in terms of information, awareness and treatment, but it’s by no means a historical issue.

Is HIV something I’m at risk of?

In 2014 alone, there were over 1,000 new HIV diagnoses in Australia, and young people represent a growing percentage of people living with HIV around the world.

If you’re sexually active, you should be practising safe sex to reduce the risk of contracting or spreading STIs like chlamydia, warts and thrush, as well as viruses like HIV.

Can I catch HIV if I know someone who’s infected?

HIV isn’t contagious in the same way a flu or other common viruses are; you can’t contract it from hugging, kissing or sharing food with someone who is living with HIV.

It’s transmitted through bodily fluids – including blood, semen and vaginal fluid – when a person living with HIV has unprotected anal or vaginal sex. It can also be transmitted through sharing needles, which is why it’s so important to make sure any needles used to give tattoos or piercings, or inject intravenous drugs, are sterile.

What can I do to help on World AIDS Day?

Being informed is the first and most important step. You can tick that one off the list already!

A visit to the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations can arm you with even more resources and information, as well.

On December 1, wear red at school or work. If people ask why, strike up a conversation about what the day signifies. Why not get some friends to do the same, and collect donations to support the work of organisations like amfAR and the AIDS Trust of Australia.

The most important thing you can do to support the cause happens year ’round: ensuring you’re protecting yourself and your partner from infection in the first place. Which might involve pre- or post-exposure prophylaxis. But the most effective thing you can do is also the simplest: using condoms.