More than three decades after plague of the AIDS virus (HIV) became known, it is still with us and has killed millions of people, most of them in the developing world. Fortunately, if patients have access to the anti-AIDS “cocktail” of drugs, the highly infectious disorder has become a chronic disease rather than one that kills its victims
It also affects people in the West, including Israel, but at a lower rate than in most developed countries. According to the AIDS Institute at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel, AIDS is nevertheless on the rise in this country, contrary to international trends. Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia who come undiagnosed and untreated are the main victims.
World AIDS Day was marked around the world on Saturday, December 1. According to the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, there are 7,745 registered AIDS carriers in the country, but officials suggested that the real number is almost 9,000, as many in the country have not undergone testing. In 2017, the number of people who were infected with the virus – transmitted by sexual relations, mixing of blood by injecting drugs with dirty needles and to one’s baby during childbirth or breastfeeding – was 405 compared to just 363 during the previous year. This follows four years in which the number of people in Israel with HIV declined.
Lawyer Chen Shmila, the chairman of the Israel AIDS Task Force, commented that he was very worried about the rise in new HIV carriers and that more money must been spent to cope with the disease. All the relevant drugs for treating HIV/AIDS patients are included in the basket of health services provided as part of the national health insurance system.
Since the first Israeli AIDS patients were diagnosed in 1981, a total of 9,593 have been reported, but the number of those alive and currently living here is 8,874. Some 87% of those who have been infected are aware of their disease, the ministry said.
In 2017, the number of AIDS patients admitted to Rambam Medical Center was 136, over double that of those admitted in 2008.
Rambam runs the only AIDS clinic in Israel’s north. The trends reported by Rambam are consistent throughout Israel.
Rambam’s data also revealed that the majority of AIDS victims were immigrants – Jews born in Ethiopia (37%) and the former Soviet Union (29%). Another finding was a rising number of AIDS carriers over 60, not from familiar risk groups but those who had been unaware of or undiagnosed with the disease until they were hospitalized. Fifteen patients died from complications of AIDS, also a disturbing increase in the trends, Rambam said Dr. Eduardo Shachar, director of the Haifa medical center’s AIDS Institute.
“Today, there are new drugs, groundbreaking treatments, comprehensive studies and completely new treatment concepts that make the disease chronic and treatable,” he continued. “To our regret, there are groups in the population who operate out of complacency, shame or are unaware of treatment available. The message is clear and important – for your own health and the health of those around you, you must be checked,”
Many of these people do not belong to the risk groups we know and are therefore not monitored, Shachar continued. “If we previously focused on certain populations, we now encounter carriers or patients over the age of 60 who come from all sectors and religions, have families, may have used drugs years ago and do not present the information to their doctors when they have symptoms. The result is that they are not aware of the disease, are not treated and are thus diagnosed during hospitalization after developing complications of immunodeficiency, having spent substantial time with medical uncertainty until getting the correct diagnosis,” added Shacher.
According to the data collected, in 2008, 61 patients were hospitalized at Rambam with a diagnosis as an HIV carrier. A decade later, that number rose to 80 HIV hospitalized carriers hospitalized. Over the past year, the number has increased, and by the end of September 2018, 90 patients had been admitted to Rambam with that diagnosis.
“On this World AIDS Day, we are reminded of the imperative of public education to assure early detection and treatment of HIV/AIDS. In the early years of this scourge, who among us did not suffer the loss of a loved one, friend or colleague from this dreaded disease? We salute the dedicated AIDS Institute team at Rambam for their unrelenting efforts in encouraging the public to be tested and in providing the highest quality of treatment to those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS,” said Richard Hirschhaut, national executive director of American Friends of Rambam Medical Center.
In 2018, the method for estimating the number of undisclosed carriers in Israel changed. Instead of relying solely on trend analysis, the ministry’s AIDS and tuberculosis department switched to using a mathematical model developed by the European Center for Disease Control to which it added some necessary adjustments for calculating the data for the State of Israel. The ministry recommends that anyone over the age of 18 should know about his or her HIV status and undergo a blood test for HIV at least once.
Preventing infections is much smarter and more inexpensive than treating HIV carriers or AIDS patients their whole lives. The ministry’s TB and AIDS department, together with voluntary associations, is working hard to prevent new infections among men who have sex with men. The programs include encouraging HIV testing and condom distribution.
In addition, since September 2017, Israel has offered pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to people at high risk for HIV infection. It is important to stress that treatment with PrEP is not a substitute for safe sexual behavior (requiring the use of condoms) in any random sexual contact.
Eight artists living with the HIV virus have opened an art exhibition in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center to present their lives through sculptures and paintings so as to increase public openness and raise awareness of the disease.
The exhibition uses art as a tool to raise awareness of AIDS, create a free discourse and increase public openness to people living with HIV. The exhibition’s creators experimented with intuitive painting Together, they will present 30 unique works, including sculptures, paintings and more.
The artworks express their different feelings as HIV carriers – their fears, the stigmas, challenges, fantasies, dreams and difficulties. “We believe that through art, we will be able to explain and demonstrate to the general public that today people living with HIV live with a chronic disease, with which a normal and healthy lifestyle can be maintained,” said Daniel Mariuma, a community welfare coordinator for the AIDS Task Force.
“The absence of an open discourse on the issue and the accompanying stigmatization are a significant obstacle to halting the spread of the virus, and we hope that the exhibition will help raise awareness of the importance of periodic testing and breaking the stigma on those living with HIV.”