By David Feaster
I recently learned that a young man in his early 20s passed away from AIDS. He was scheduled to start with our agency for services, but he became too sick, was hospitalized and passed away within days. We did not have the opportunity to help him. We were never able to share with him the fact that HIV is now a treatable illness, one which responds well to medications that allow those infected to live full and healthy lives.
He might have come in sooner and received the support that he needed to treat his illness, but his fear was too great.
I have worked at CARES for more than a decade now, helping our team provide free services to educate, test and facilitate treatment of HIV. And while I am aware that many of our community members living with HIV are doing well, many still are not. It may seem difficult to understand why everyone who has HIV is not taking advantage of the most advanced medical treatments available, especially when you consider that these treatments can be free. But HIV is a frightening condition to many. It has become much more than a health concern; the diagnosis comes with assumptions about the lives of those infected. And many in our community feel compelled to judge and punish those already struggling.
I have been wondering why stories of HIV stigma and discrimination continue, given all that we now know about the disease. In the last few months, there have been several examples of this stigma in our community; A homeless man was asked to use disposable plates and utensils at a local shelter; another man in rehabilitation was asked not to work in the facility kitchen due to his HIV status; a social worker insisted that a mother needed a plan to keep her children from becoming infected; employees of a social service agency insisted that they need to know who of their clientele have HIV so that they can protect themselves.
So why do these stories continue? Two reasons that come to mind are prejudice and ignorance. But no matter the reason, the result is the same – those with HIV are marginalized. People speak disparagingly of those with HIV and treat those they believe to have HIV so poorly that many HIV positive people cannot bear the burden of such stigma. More than half of those diagnosed with HIV, right here in our community, do not receive medical treatment. This means our own community members are choosing certain death over facing the stigma that might result if someone were to find out that they had HIV.
We are said to be living in the age of reason. Our actions must be based on facts and science and not personal bias as we strive for solutions to our greatest social problems. Fear and ignorance cannot be a justification to continue stigma and stigma cannot be the reason that we, as a society, fail to end this long-standing battle and prevent our community members from the good health we all deserve. We have the means to end AIDS in our lifetime. We can do this now; we have medications that will essentially put HIV into remission. It has become a chronic condition, not a terminal one. And, we now know that the medications that treat the infection can even reduce the ability to transmit the virus to others. If everyone with HIV were successfully treating, we could remove the possibility of further transmission. So many people have worked so hard to get us to this point, the end of AIDS is within reach right now, and we have all of the tools that we need. We cannot allow fear and ignorance to prevent us from attaining this long overdue success.
As World AIDS Day approaches this December 1st, I challenge you to be part of the solution. We all need you to be.