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Denmark strives to curb HIV/AIDS, social stigma

11-30-2011 13:28 BJT Special Report:World AIDS Day 2011 |

by Devapriyo Das

COPENHAGEN, Nov. 30 (Xinhua) -- Despite being a model provider and developer of AIDS treatment, Denmark still struggles to dispell the social stigma against HIV patients, which in turn hurts the effort to stop the epidemic.

When Claus Christensen was diagnosed with HIV in 1994, he did not tell anyone about it.

"I was sure that when they found out I was positive, they would run away. They would see me as a monster," said the school teacher who turns 42 this year.

But 17 years later, Christensen is married to a woman who is not HIV-positive and has fathered a four-year-old daughter. He feels life has greatly improved for HIV patients here.

"HIV is a part of our life, but it doesn't really affect us. As long as I take my medication properly, I am not able to infect others in any way, not even sexually," he told Xinhua.

Antiretroviral (ARV) therapy, a combination of medicines taken daily, suppresses the virus in Christensen's blood to such a low level that he cannot transmit the disease through intercourse or blood transfusions, the most common modes of transmission.

"If we make the diagnosis early, it seems as if Danish HIV patients have a life expectancy close to that of the normal population," said Dr. Jan Gerstoft of Copenhagen University Hospital, who has been treating Danish HIV/AIDS patients over the past 30 years.

AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, is a disease of the human immune system caused by HIV. AIDS sufferers are much more susceptible to infections and diseases than those with healthy immune systems.

Gerstoft told Xinhua that Denmark advocates early treatment for HIV patients. Treatment is provided free of charge by the Danish public health system through public hospitals, and costs around 10,000 euros per patient per year.

According to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), there were an estimated 5,300 patients diagnosed with HIV in Denmark in 2009, with another 1,000 who are thought to be infected but do not know their HIV status.

The main risk groups are men who have sex with men, followed by ethnic minorities living in Denmark, notably those from countries in sub-Saharan Africa and eastern Europe.

"Unfortunately, we still find a little under 300 new infections every year, and that has been stable over the last 10 years," Gerstoft told Xinhua.


The HIV dark numbers, namely, those living with HIV/AIDS but who do not know it, make it very hard to reach the goal of zero new diagnoses on a yearly basis, said Klaus Legau, executive manager of Stop AIDS, a Copenhagen-based support organization for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons living with HIV.

"To mark World AIDS Day this year (Dec.1), we are focusing on stigma in Denmark, which we think is the key reason for people not coming for counseling or not being tested for HIV," he said.

The organization already offers free, voluntary HIV tests in cafes, bars, clubs, and other places of entertainment in Denmark's nightlife, and conducts information campaigns providing sexual health advice to high-risk groups.

Yet Legau believes taboos surrounding HIV/AIDS can only be eroded by improving awareness among the broader Danish population.

"It is the most stigmatized disease in Denmark. For example, one fifth of the Danish population still does not want to drink from the same coffee cup as an HIV-positive person has been drinking from," he said.

Moreover, under Danish law, an HIV-positive person can face up to eight years in prison for having unprotected sex.

Legau wants this law abolished, as he believes it deepens stigma. He wants HIV to be regarded under Danish law like any other contagious but treatable disease.

Christiansen, who has written a book titled "A Life with HIV," where he documents how he overcame stigma and fear of HIV, agreed. "I hope ... people would not get punished for infecting others with HIV, because that scares people from getting tested, and stops them (from) being honest about their status," he said.

The Danish parliament has currently suspended the HIV law and is considering dropping it altogether.


Meanwhile, Denmark hopes medical breakthroughs will lead to zero new HIV infections.

Danish researchers are already testing a therapeutic vaccine which can help treat an infected HIV patient, while efforts are underway globally to find a preventive vaccine to protect humans from contracting HIV.

"One could hope to make a vaccine that would help control faster and better the incoming virus so it can be suppressed to undetectable levels," said Professor Anders Fomsgaard, who is helping develop a therapeutic HIV vaccine at Statens Serum Institut, a Copenhagen-based health research center.

"We are trying to pursue such a vaccine and are testing it in people that are already infected, in Denmark and in Guinea-Bissau in West Africa," he told Xinhua.

Fomsgaard's research has identified certain parts of the HIV virus that the human body's immune system can react to. This is important given that HIV destroys a patient's immunity, or ability to respond to sickness.

The vaccine helps the immune system react very strongly to these identified parts, and makes it difficult for the virus to mutate.

The vaccine was tested on persons not already on ARV medication, and who have a high amount of the virus present in their bodies.

"The advantage is that this vaccine is able to add a new immunity to people. The problem with it is we did not observe the patients' viral load go down to undetectable levels," Fomsgaard said.

Thus, Fomsgaard believes vaccines will have to coexist with ARV treatment, where the therapy helps suppress the virus while the vaccine preserves the patient's immune system.

"We believe that the combination of the two may have the potential to eradicate the virus, so you can stop your ARV medicine and go on with your life," he said.

Such a vaccine may become commercially available in the far future to help AIDS patients like Christensen. But that does not stop him from explaining to his students, colleagues, strangers and other HIV sufferers what it means to live positively.

"I feel I can tell the other (people) infected by HIV that there is a life ahead. Maybe it is very difficult to grasp it right now, but they should not fear that the world will turn its back on them," he said.

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Editor:Zhang Hao |Source: Xinhua

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