It’s now widely accepted that HIV originated in Africa and was the result of SIV, a virus found in primates, crossing over into humans via the bush-meat trade. What allowed it to spread across the continent were the tracks and roads that had been established by European colonists; local populations within the affected areas were linked to the larger city and urban sprawls far easier than ever before. Decedents of these colonists founded the European empires around the globe. The idea of a Commonwealth of Nations grew from the increase of countries within the British Empire gaining full or forms of independence from the end of the 1800s, going through many guises and changes until the mid-20th Century when it took its current form and the use of the word ‘Commonwealth’ was first used.
The citizens of the 53 members of the Commonwealth of Nations make up about 30% of the global population, but a disproportionate number of those are people living with HIV. This is largely due to the numbers of people living with the virus on the African continent. HIV has impacted sub-Saharan people more than anywhere else on the planet, and with the majority of African members of the Commonwealth situated within this vast region it’s of no surprise that many, if not all, have struggled with the HIV pandemic. Of the 34 million people estimated to be living with the virus over 21 million live in the Commonwealth, and over 18 million of these in Africa.
In fact 9 of the top 10 countries for the highest adult (15-49) prevalence of HIV are currently African members of the Commonwealth, and the other country, Zimbabwe, was itself a former member. As of 2011 WHO and UNICEF believed Swaziland to be the most effected nation with an adult prevalence of 26%, followed by Botswana and Lesotho with 23% each.
At the other end of the spectrum the countries within Europe and Oceania have an average prevalence of less than 0.3%. The Asian countries within the group also have a low prevalence of HIV but with the large Indian population they account for approximately 12% of all people living with HIV in the Commonwealth. This contrasts with the countries of the Americas, with the majority having very small populations even with an average prevalence greater than anywhere else other than Africa less than 200,000 were living with HIV in 2011.
As a group of nations we share a history, not one that was always pleasant or fair. The Commonwealth allows us to work together on a number of initiatives that affect all members, but more should be done to work together to fight HIV and the issues that the virus brings to those who are living with it. Heads of Commonwealth states shouldn’t just be giving personal leadership to combat HIV, they need to work more closely together and stand up to each other when there are wrongs to right. It’s not acceptable that some Commonwealth states refuse entry to people living with HIV, it’s not right that many of the HIV population within the Commonwealth have inadequate access to medication or are unable to see a doctor when they need to. It’s not fair that more isn’t being done to help people aging with HIV, who weren’t expected to live as long as they are. And it’s not fair that babies are still being born with HIV or children are being orphaned by it.
As a group of nations we have many differences and we should be proud to celebrate and share our cultures and beliefs. But in many ways we are very much the same. For those living with HIV the virus impacts our life in various ways but the stigma affects us all the same – and together we need to fight it.
Another Commonwealth Games is coming towards a close and we are counting the successes from the pool, track, fields and courts, so let’s think about the achievements we as a group of nations need to attain in order to tackle the global issues associated with HIV. Let’s work together to open our borders to HIV positive people, provide access to HIV medication and deliver assistance to those growing old with HIV or to the mothers bringing life into the world whilst living with the virus.