“We are winning the fight against HIV, but we are losing the fight against ignorance.”World Aids Day Campaign
Tomorrow, the first of December, is World AIDS Day. On this day, we raise awareness about HIV and AIDS. To highlight this day, we interviewed two employees, Amalia and Vasilis, from
World AIDS Day
World AIDS Day was founded in 1988, and it was the first ever global health day. This year, it is therefore the 30th anniversary of the day. World AIDS Day takes place on the first of December every year. It is an opportunity for people all over the world to unite in the fight against HIV and to show solidarity with the millions of people living with HIV worldwide. This year’s theme is ‘Know your status’, with the aim of encouraging everyone to know their HIV status. Although there has been a lot of progress since 1988, 1 out of 4 people with HIV still don’t know that they are HIV positive. At the end of this article, you can find out more about how you can get to know your status and get an HIV test in Thessaloniki.
In 2017, 36.9 million people were living with HIV worldwide. The current treatments for HIV are so effective that they can suppress the viral load, so that people cannot transmit the virus any longer. The life expectancy of HIV positive people under treatment is equivalent to people without the virus. However, globally more than half of the people living with HIV are not virally suppressed, which mean they can transmit the virus. In 2017, 1.8 million new people contracted the virus. This is why the focus of this year’s World AIDS Day is on getting people to become aware of their status, on raising awareness and on HIV testing a normal thing. Because it can take years for symptoms of the virus to become apparent, it is possible to have it for a long time without being aware. This is also why it is so important to take HIV tests frequently, and to be aware of your status.
HIV in Greece
Statistics say that in Greece, around 16.700 people have been diagnosed with HIV. 82.8 percent of these are men. For about 4000 of those diagnosed, HIV has developed into AIDS. In 2017, there were 628 new diagnoses of HIV in Greece. A third of these were done by Checkpoint. What Checkpoint is? Read further to find out more about this initiative.
Positive Voice and Checkpoint
In 2009, the association Positive Voice was founded to improve the situation of people living with HIV/AIDS in Greece. Throughout the year, they organise many different actions to fight the stigma around HIV and to increase solidarity and acceptance. In 2012, Positive Voice collaborated with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) to start Checkpoint. Some of the main aims of Checkpoint are to reduce the number of undiagnosed people living with HIV, promote regular HIV and STI testing, reduce the spread of HIV in Greece, and minimise the effects of stigma, misconceptions and myths about HIV. In addition to providing free testing, an important part of their work is providing information, so that people can make informed decisions about their sexual practices, and know what actions may be riskful.
The project was first started in Athens in November 2012. Checkpoint in Thessaloniki was started about a year and a half later. Originally, Athens Checkpoint focused on men having sex with men. Thess Checkpoint wanted to address the services to a wider audience, without taking into consideration sexual orienation or behaviour, in order to normalise HIV tests for all populations. Over time, Athens took over this concept as well. Nowadays, Checkpoint is freely accessible for everybody who wants to know their HIV status. In the six years since the start of the first Checkpoint, the centers have conducted more than 100.000 free exams for HIV, and hepatitis B and C, and distributed over 5.000.000 free condoms.
Despite the work of Positive Voice and Checkpoint, there is still stigma around HIV, and many people have misconceptions. Some examples that Amalia and Vasilis mentioned were that you could contract HIV by kissing someone or by drinking from the same glass, or that it is only related to gay men. Furthermore, many people still believe that having HIV is fatal. Amalia: “What we insist on explaining is that with new treatment, there’s no such thing as being afraid for your life anymore.” Because of a lack of education and sexual counselling, many people still have these kind of misconceptions, and it leads to stigma of those having HIV, as well as a fear of taking HIV tests.
In order to decrease the sigma, Positive Voice and Checkpoint are working hard to be visible, to be there for people and to convince people that it’s okay, normal and a good idea to get tested. Vasilis proposed several ways to us in which stigma can be decreased. One is to give people a place to learn, like Checkpoint. Another important way to fight stigma is through education. Additionally, there is work to do when it comes to legal rights of HIV positive people and other minority groups, for example to protect them from discrimination. Finally, Vasilis said, we can challenge the idea that only certain groups get HIV, as this leads to a double stigma, in the sense that people may assume things about HIV positive people and the way they got the virus. Vasilis: “If you break these chains, then it’s just the HIV. And if you learn about the HIV, then it’s nothing.”
Getting tested at Thess Checkpoint
At Thess Checkpoint, you can get tests for HIV and hepatitis B and C. It is completely free and anonymous. The test includes a short information session with one of the Checkpoint employees. They will give you information about safe sex, about riskful behaviour and how to decrease the chances of getting HIV. They will also do their best to decrease your nerves about the test. Part of the concept of Checkpoint is to make sure that people feel at ease when they take a test. The test itself is done very quickly using the “rapid test” method, in which some blood is taken from your finger. You will found out the results in a minute. If the result is positive (antibodies to one of the viruses are detected), Checkpoint helps you in getting further healthcare.
In case someone tests positive at Checkpoint, they need to do a second test to reassure that the result is positive. Then they will need to do some more health exams at the hospital and start treatment. The drugs are provided for free.
It is a lack of awareness, lack of knowledge, that causes fear and prejudice. Knowing things is very powerful, because then you are no longer afraid. And each and every one of us can be an ambassador, so as to spread the word and make it normal for all.Amalia, employee at Checkpoint
On World AIDS Day, Positive Voice, Checkpoint and AHF Europe are organising several events in Thessaloniki. Find more information here!
Thess Checkpoint is located at Alexander Svolou 15 and has the following opening hours:
Tuesday – Friday 12:00-20:00
Find more information on their website!
Interview and photography: Filip Grác
Interview and writing: Sacha Bogaers