December 1st is World AIDS Day and this week the world will be observing.
It is a day that I mostly dread because it reminds me of realities I’d like to ignore; of the hundreds of friends I’ve lost over the years to the disease, of the losses in my own life and in the lives of so many I love. The global observance also gives me pause as I reflect on how far we still have to go to truly reverse this pandemic.
And yet it also prompts me to be grateful that so many of us are still here to commemorate the day so many decades later. When my own journey with HIV began in 1992, viable treatment wasn’t yet available, but now, in 2014, HIV is no longer considered a presumptive disability and it is certainly not viewed as an automatic death sentence. Indeed, many would now say HIV has become a chronic, manageable, disease.
Pediatric transmission from mother-to-child has been so well-studied and the response so effective that almost no babies in North America or Western Europe are now born with HIV, although sadly this is not yet the case globally. In short, science has come much further than society, when it comes to HIV and AIDS. People still face discrimination when living with the virus and, sadly, we see similar things happening now in light of recent outbreaks of Ebola.
People often are afraid of what they can’t understand and, as such, people with HIV or AIDS or Ebola become the place-markers for the fear they can’t overcome and, tragically, that often manifests in treating others badly. Until we are all educated about how these viruses are – and are not – spread, the stigma and discrimination will remain.
By the way, in case you’ve always wondered but were afraid to ask, the vast majority – about 85% or more – of people in the world are infected with HIV through unprotected sex. I can only speak for myself, but I will suggest that it is better not to ask someone how they got a disease because in doing so, you’re asking them to relive something painful so let them bring it up. Or not. Much better to skip that question and move swiftly on to something like “If I can ever be of any help, let me know, will you?”.
My full-time work on HIV, with the United Nations, ended when I left that career in 2011. I walked away because I simply didn’t have any fight left in me. I’d stopped speaking up in meetings and knew it was time to hand the work over to someone else with more energy, new ideas and solutions. And, three years later, I still don’t have much fight in me when it comes to this pandemic, but I’m rebuilding my strength and amplifying my voice through my writing so that in small ways I can continue to break down the stereotypes and fight the stigma and discrimination that still fuels this pandemic.
HIV and AIDS are not yet cured, we have a long way to go, so today, I simply ask that if you’ve taken the time to read these few hundred words, please now take the time to learn a bit more about what you can do to reverse the pandemic.
- Be tested for HIV, yourself, so that you know your own HIV status. Remember, not knowing your status does not make you uninfected, it just makes you ignorant. By being tested, you’ll both be informed but you’ll also have the experience of testing so that you can perhaps encourage others. If you’re a parent, you’ll be a better role model to your children who will have to consider HIV in their own futures. As a global citizen, you’ll simply be better prepared to make healthy decisions in your own life and that is worth a lot.
- Consider how you speak when you talk about HIV – or Ebola or any other serious illness. Remember that there are human beings at the end of each statistic, people who are parents or children or siblings or friends or co-workers just like everyone else. Each life counts.
- When planning your next vacation, think about the fact that there are still over 40 countries with travel restrictions for people living with HIV – simply because they carry a virus, they may not be allowed entry.
- Continue to contribute in whatever way feels appropriate to the work towards reversing the pandemic, either with donations to organizations on the ground or by supporting products that contribute profits to The Global Fund or even just by thinking about how you react to discussions about HIV or AIDS, whatever works for you, it helps.
- Share this post or tell someone else you’ve been thinking about HIV and see what comes of it. Knowledge is power.
Thank you for reading this. Thank you for caring and, above all, thank you for doing your part, however big or small. I appreciate you.