By Justen Roderick
When HIV/AIDS hit the United States, many never imagined there would be a once-daily regimen in the form of a little blue pill, named PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), that would render the virus ‘non transmittable’. Even though we’ve made unprecedented progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS, there remains one issue that continues to plague those living with the virus, permeating through their familial, romantic, and sexual relationships – and it’s called stigma.
What is HIV stigma?
Stigma is prejudice and discrimination against a perceivable disgraceful quality, circumstance, or person. In this case, it’s essentially being serophobic. Serophobia is the fear of those living with HIV, moreso a fear that one will become infected with the virus if they come in contact with an HIV-positive individual. Stigma and serophobia feed off of one another and deter people from becoming knowledgeable about the disease.
How does stigma affect HIV-positive individuals? Studies that chart the presence of depression and anxiety in those living with the virus often use stigma as a variable. Other factors that may lead to poor mental health in HIV-positive individuals include poor medication adherence, lack of social support, and an AIDS diagnosis. When we stigmatize someone living with HIV, we are essentially categorizing them as someone belonging in the lower ranks of society. In the gay world, doing this would further compartmentalize our community based on who deserves love and sex.
In order to fight the stigma, we need to acknowledge key facts in the fight to eradicate the virus. From 2008 to 2014, new HIV cases dropped 18 percent in the U.S., proving that treatment and prevention strategies are working in the public health sphere. What are some of the strategies being used? Well, PEP and PrEP are available for those who fear they may have been exposed to the virus and those who want a preventative measure against contracting the virus, respectively.
If you have reservations about having sexual relations with a person who is HIV-positive, remember that at the end of 2015, over 17 million people were accessing antiretroviral medications. What does this mean? When an HIV-positive person begins antiretroviral treatment, the goal is for the medication to suppress their viral load (copies of HIV in the bloodstream) and raise their CD4-count (number of T-cells in the body). T-cells fight off viral antibodies.
But even with an undetectable viral load, stigma is still alive. That’s because HIV has long been associated with promiscuity and poor sexual practices. But in reality, it only takes one time for transmission to occur. HIV works in a six-month window, so you are only as negative as your last test result. More sexual encounters increases the possibility of being exposed to the virus.
17 million people seeking treatment is a fantastic number, but it’s not everyone. Think about all of the people who don’t know they have the virus and continue to have unsafe sex. Think about people who fear getting tested because they dread receiving a positive result. We stigmatize the virus to the point that we can become negligent with our own health. In this way, HIV stigma not only hurts those with the virus but also those without it.
The key to defeating the stigma is to educate ourselves about the virus, learn about preventative measures, and hear the stories of those who are HIV positive or received an AIDS diagnosis. We can be the generation that defeats HIV.