by Jessica Carreras
When Michigan AIDS Coalition Executive Director Helen Hicks announced her thoughts about adopting an HIV-positive child to her friends, she was shocked at the response.
“Our friends thought we were insane, saying, ‘You’re going to bring this child into your house, and as cute as he or she may be, your whole family will become infected and you’re all going to die of AIDS,'” she recalled of the experience. “I have friends and I think that they’re educated – some of them have Master’s degrees in a variety of fields – but they don’t understand that it’s not true.”
And though Hicks and her husband ended up not adopting another child for unrelated reasons, the message of the experience stayed with her. Now, in her work at the MAC, combating myths about HIV transmission is something she deals with every day.
Toilet seats. Kissing. Sneezing. Handshakes.
The falsities so pervasive in the earlier years of the AIDS epidemic may seem, to some who are familiar with or have lost loved ones to the disease, like things of the past. However, HIV/AIDS activists are quick to correct that notion: Myths about HIV transmission are alive and well in 2009, and they still need to be addressed.
Prisoner fight and a neighborhood bite
Just recently, several cases of HIV transmission myths that persist in today’s society have come up in Michigan.
In Clinton Township, a man faces terrorism charges after allegedly biting his neighbor during a fight.
Daniel Allen, a 44-year-old HIV-positive man, is accused of biting his neighbor, Winfred Fernandis Jr., on the lip during a fight, the conditions of which are disputed by both sides. Allen was charged with aggravated assault and assault with intent to maim.
However, when news came to the surface that he is HIV positive, Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith announced that he would seek additional charges: possession or use of a harmful device, a terrorism law enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. If convicted, Allen could face a 25-year felony sentence and a lifelong label as a terrorist.
Though there is a small chance that HIV can be transmitted through such a scenario, some HIV activists claim that the likelihood does not warrant such a sentence.
“This troubles me very much,” Lambda Legal HIV Project Director Bebe Anderson said of the case to the Michigan Messenger earlier this month. “I think it is a very dangerous thing for prosecution to proceed with a charge or an enhanced charge based on a person’s HIV status. Typically these prosecutions are based on ignorance about HIV transmission. These prosecutions add to ignorance in the general public about HIV transmission, and they certainly add to the stigmatization of people living with HIV.”
In the Michigan prison system, a similar fear of HIV transmission has kept HIV-positive prisoners from working in food service jobs. Though it was first announced that the policy was put in place to prevent HIV spread through food, the Michigan Department of Corrections later retracted that statement and held that the policy was to prevent violence against HIV-positive prisoners by other inmates.
In the case of the prison rule, the MDOC has said that they are working to change the policy.
As for Allen, the verdict remains to be seen – but the outlook is not good, as he faces precedent set by People v. Antoine Deshaw Odom, a case in which a Michigan prisoner infected with HIV and Hepatitis C was found guilty of the same terrorism charge after spitting at prison guards.
Beyond legal matters, HIV activists claim that misinformation about HIV transmission pervades every day work and life – from the case of Hicks’ possible adoption to situations encountered at AIDS agencies.
In one case, said Hicks, a baby shower held at a room MAC often rents out resulted in a complaint from an attendee. “One of the people who came to the shower asked me why we didn’t have toilet seat covers, because we were an AIDS organization, and really felt strongly that we needed to have that,” Hicks recalled.
In another case, an applicant for an administrative position at the non-profit withdrew her name because her husband was afraid of her contracting the disease while working there.
“I was so shocked,” Hicks commented. “You wouldn’t take a job because you think – your husband thinks you’re going to come home infected? It was beyond me.”
But fear is far-reaching – even as far as the family, in many cases of HIV.
Michelle Brown, who is on the board of the Michigan Women and AIDS Committee, relayed that she often hears of people being rejected by their friends and family after being diagnosed as HIV positive. “People have crazy ideas when they find out (others) have HIV,” she said. “One woman I talked to said that when she found out, she was no longer welcome at Thanksgiving dinner.”
And that, Brown added, makes some of the most heavily affected groups – such as African-American women – afraid to get tested and left in the dark about how they can and cannot become infected.
“People need to know that there is more than one way to get HIV,” she said, addressing the attitude toward “down low” men. “So to say ‘my man is straight’ or to think that any guy you see who is on the down low or maybe looks like he is, ‘If I stay away from him, I’m safe,’ you’re wrong.”
The Center for Disease Control recently released studies addressing that particular problem, suggesting that notions about the majority of transmissions within the black community coming from “down low” men are false.
“It is crucially important to bear in mind that there are a range of risk factors which face black women in the United States today,” National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention Director Kevin Fenton told National Public Radio in an October interview. “The reality is that bisexual black men account for a very, very small proportion of the over all black male population.”
Instead, Fenton said, black women are contracting HIV through intravenous drug use and sexual activity with infected partners who are not necessarily on the “down low.”
Making sure high-risk groups have correct information about HIV transmission, Fenton added, is one of the most important – and most difficult – parts of prevention. “It really is important that we understand why the infection is spreading and where the infection is spreading within the community, so we can take effective action,” he told NPR. “And part of the response must be to address some of the myths and misinformation regarding how HIV is being transmitted within the community.”
Addressing the myths, HIV/AIDS activists agree, is crucial to prevention – and organizations like MAC are working hard to do just that.
A program that MAC uses is Positive Perspective, where “we send people living with HIV/AIDS to speak to the general population at any setting, at any time to tell the truth about the various ways in which HIV can, in fact, be contracted and the ways in which it cannot,” Hicks explained.
Unfortunately, like much of the government money for AIDS services, the state-funded Positive Perspective program is up to expire in February, leaving MAC and other agencies that utilize it to continue the funding in-house.
But funding is just one of the issues faced by HIV/AIDS activists.
Brown said that the Michigan Women and AIDS Committee has tried in vain to reach out to children in Detroit Public Schools about the disease, but has met only brick walls. Instead, the group is now hoping to bring young adults to the information in a non-school setting.
“We’re going to have a day at Cobo Hall where they’re going to bus in kids and we can show them everything,” she explained. “In schools, you don’t bring in condoms, you don’t try to talk about it.”
Hicks hopes that people will take it upon themselves to get educated – with a little push from activists. “I think (people should) educate themselves, allow us to send them information, get on our Web site, read about the truth, go online and teach themselves,” she encouraged. “I mean, you have to want to know though, and I think that’s the biggest part of it: just getting over that initial fear and then enforcing yourself to find sources that can inform you better.”
And, Brown added, if people aren’t informed about transmission, they won’t bother to get tested. “People need to know how it is and isn’t transmitted because we tend to go on witch hunts,” she said. “I mean, if this guy gets convicted for biting his neighbor, then any time somebody who’s HIV positive does something, it opens up the witch hunt. It adds to the stigma, which means more people won’t want to get tested.”
For Hicks, World AIDS Day is the perfect opportunity to end misinformation, spread understanding – and get tested for HIV. “That’s another thing we can all do, is make it a point to all share our knowledge with others,” she said. “We’re all not educated about something – I think that’s another way to look at it. So on World AIDS Day or this week or next week, these are all good times to begin to educate ourselves and our friends.”