HIV: Human Immunodeficiency Virus; a virus that invades the human body’s T-cells, weakening the immune system.
This tiny virus is about 60 times smaller than a red blood cell, yet globally, billions of dollars are spent each year to try and fight it.
While we often know the name, and know that countries are actively fighting against HIV, we often forget about the reality of persons living with HIV (PLHIV). Why do we treat HIV, and the people affected by it, differently than any other disease or illness?
Imagine you get a call one day from a family friend; she says that she regrets to inform you, but your mother has just passed away from cancer. This comes as a huge shock because your mother never told you that she had any health concerns, let alone something as serious as cancer. The friend says your mother didn’t feel like she could tell anyone because she didn’t want to lose her family, lose her job, get thrown out of her home, or abused when people found out. She also says that your mother could still be living a healthy, happy life right now if she would have gotten cancer treatment. Now you’re confused; your mother had a serious, life threatening form of cancer and she didn’t get any treatment? The friend continues and says your mother tried to get treatment, however the health centers refused to provide her with the treatment and care she needed. They told her she must have done something bad to deserve getting cancer, and deserved whatever followed.
This situation sounds crazy right?
Now replace the word cancer in this story with HIV, and read it again.
The unfortunate reality is that this situation doesn’t sounds so crazy anymore. This is a reality that too many persons living with HIV are currently facing. Why is it that we hold these two diseases to different standards of acceptance?
In order for the billions of dollars that are spent fighting HIV to be effective, we as global citizens, need to start reevaluating the face we see when we think of HIV. We need to start seeing the actual people affected by HIV; see their smiles, their families, their friends, and how valuable these people are. We need to see PLHIV not as sick, immoral individuals, but as people who need our support, love, and encouragement to live the lives they are meant to live. I am constantly amazed by the vibrant, brilliant, passionate, generous, humorous, loving, kind, PLHIV I have met these past few months; this is the face of HIV we need to see in order to truly battle this disease.
There is often a fear associated with PLHIV; people are scared that they and their communities will become infected with HIV if there is a PLHIV around. However, the reality is that HIV is a very difficult disease to transmit and contract. There are only 4 bodily fluids that HIV can be transmitted by:
- Vaginal Fluid
- Breast Milk
Unless someone is directly exposed to these fluids, there is really no risk of transmission. We can hug, kiss, and touch PLHIV and remain negative. We can share a classroom, a desk, a toilet, and a pen with PLHIV and still remain negative. In daily life, we would be more at risk to catch a cold from someone with HIV (if they had a cold) than contract HIV.
In addition, once PLHIV start on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment and their viral load becomes undetectable, the risk of HIV transmission becomes negligible. Instead of shaming, judging, and preventing PLHIV to start and maintain their treatment, we need to band together as a society and support these individuals to get the treatment and care they need, and deserve.
The reality is, any person can get HIV: young, old, male, female, transgender, heterosexual, homosexual, virgin, sex worker etc. We cannot stereotype the type of person someone is if they have HIV, because HIV does not discriminate against whom it infects. I have met people who contracted HIV from their loved ones, others who got it through rape, and some who were born with it. Regardless of who someone is, or how someone got HIV, they should not be defined or evaluated based on the results of one medical test.
In order to start treating HIV like any other disease we need to start breaking the stigma associated with HIV, and start changing the perception of this disease. In 2016, HIV does not come with a death sentence; ARVs allow people the freedom and ability to live long, healthy, happy lives. We need to start seeing the disease for what it is and stop living in fear of it. By starting to accept HIV we give millions of PLHIV a chance. A chance to be honest with their friends and family. A chance to get the treatment they deserve. A chance to live their lives.
It’s time for us to stop treating HIV differently.