As someone working in the field of HIV/AIDS, I have had many conversations about the topic with people ranging from politicians to middle school students. However, I will never forget the recent conversation that I had with a long-term (25+ years) survivor who shared how he could manage the symptoms, the side effects of the medication and even accepting that he may not live as long as he planned; but it was the stigma that he struggled with the most. So why, at the ripe old age of 32, does the stigma of HIV/AIDS remain so devastating?
A new survey by the National AIDS Trust demonstrated how the lack of knowledge about HIV/AIDS, despite our access to social media and the internet, remains significant. For example:
- 20% of the survey respondents believed that HIV/AIDS is a death sentence and that the life expectancy of a newly diagnosed person is about 10 years;
- Over one-third of the respondents believed that people living with HIV were not allowed to work in schools, hospitals or restaurants;
- Over 25% believed that people living with HIV are legally required to disclose their status.
After reading these results, I recalled a conversation that I had with a Miami cab driver. I often share what I do for a living, partially to gauge the reaction, but also to ascertain what they know about HIV/AIDS. I was mortified when this cab driver, who looked to be in the 25-35 year old range and was deftly welding the GPS on his smartphone to navigate, said that he knew that there was a drug to treat AIDS: AZT! For those of us even remotely familiar with HIV, to hear someone express that s/he knew of only one medication to treat it-which happens to be the first anti-retroviral medication to treat HIV/AIDS AND was introduced in 1984!
Is it fair to expect people to know more about HIV/AIDS? At what point does personal safety take over? Doesn't over 25 million deaths, with over 34 million people living with HIV/AIDS at least inspire some curiosity? I am a little biased of course, but it would certainly make my work and others like me, not to mention the lives of the tens of millions living with it a little easier if more people took the time to avail themselves of the tons of information available to them. Isn't it worth the time?