HIV Stigma could kill you if you do not get treated

This is from a Facebook post that is a lifesaver if you ask me. HIV Stigma is such a huge thing and most people blow off HIV and think they will not come down with complications from it or die from it. With so many ways to get tested now you do not have to worry about going into a clinic and seeing piers to do it. Just go into a Walgreens or CVS or pick up an oral test online. Getting tested though is not the concern it is getting treated and you MUST get treated if you know that you have the virus. Let’s come together and fight this stigma not only on World Aids Day, December 1st, but everyday.

Recently I had a friend (who shall remain nameless, of course) confide to me that he is HIV-positive. He had concealed this from most people, including me, for far longer than I would have guessed. In fact, when I asked him how long it had been since he found out, I expected an answer in terms of weeks or months at the most. In actuality he had been HIV-positive for at least two years, if not more, and by this time he was noticeably experiencing more and more symptoms of an immune system under duress. The reason he disclosed his status to me is because he wanted advice on how to go about seeking medical treatment due to his lack of insurance. Understandably, many uninsured individuals are wholly ignorant of the options available to them, especially when it concerns diagnoses as serious as HIV. The fact that he went two or more years without treatment, though disturbing since treatment should begin as soon as possible after discovery per emergent recommendations, is not what disturbed me most. What disturbed me most was the fact that he was not wholly ignorant of the options available to him but was afraid to utilize them because of perceived stigma. When I mentioned a facility in his city that provides linkage to services like prescription medications and further medical testing for the viral load and T-cell count, he told me he was aware it is there but he was afraid to make an appointment because he did not want to risk being seen by others he may know. This tells me that there truly is a disconnect between what is perceived by the general population and what the reality is.

The perception is that an HIV diagnosis automatically relegates someone to a “less than” status; that death approaches and an aura of shame will surround that individual for the rest of his or her life. While the threat of imminent death may have been a valid fear back in the ‘80s and even the ‘90s, this is no longer the case for those individuals who have access to lifesaving treatments and take the additional steps necessary to manage the virus. And while the issue of access is an ever-present one, more people than ever before, both insured and uninsured, have access to basic medical care for HIV including prescription therapy thanks to agencies like the Ryan White Foundation, nonprofit organizations like AIDS Arms in Dallas or the Legacy center in Houston, and patient assistance programs offered by pharmaceutical companies. Taking all of this into consideration, I would like to stress the fact that there is essentially no difference between an HIV-positive person and an HIV-negative person as long as the HIV-positive person is on a successful prescription regimen and monitors his or her condition responsibly. Aside from the more traditional prevention measures like condoms and abstinence, prescription treatment of the condition itself is the most effective method for prevention of transmission and it ensures that HIV-positive individuals are now able to lead full, productive, and healthy lives. They can be in safe serodiscordant relationships with HIV-negative partners, father or give birth to HIV-negative children, participate in competitive contact sports, enjoy an active sex life, and grow to a ripe old age just like anybody else. Is it not high time that the general population be made aware of these things? It seems like the reduction in stigma over the past thirty years has not kept pace with the advances made in modern medicine, and if it had then my friend would not have had to worry about being seen by others he knows at an HIV care clinic.

HIV not only affects homosexual men but heterosexual men and women as well. I will say that as a homosexual public health student, it is of particular importance to me because of the havoc it has wreaked on the LGBT community both in terms of the numbers of deaths and illnesses it has caused and the stigma it has produced which lingers to this day — even within the LGBT community itself. Nobody should be so afraid of the unfounded fears abounding out there that they fail to seek out medical services before too much time has elapsed. I urge you to take a few moments to examine your own perceptions about HIV. Was my nameless friend’s fear a valid one? Would you have acted in a similar manner? Have you updated your knowledge on HIV since whatever may have been hastily presented to you in your high school health class? Please do not let your own perceptions, actions, and statements perpetuate an unjustified stigma. My friend’s situation is one that should never have occurred, especially in 2012.

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