Vail Daily column: Celebrate World AIDS Day
World AIDS Day (today) is a day to promote awareness of the ongoing fight against the AIDS epidemic around the world. This day should serve as a reminder to everyone that we must continue to work together to overcome the challenges and keep the world focused on the achievable goal of solidarity and an AIDS-free generation.
Perhaps you can recall reports of AIDS in the 1980s? The death toll was skyrocketing and the political response in America was founded on fear-based policies. HIV activists know all too well the dire consequences of a public health response based on fear and stigma instead of scientific evidence. The evidence became clear that HIV could not be transmitted by casual contact, yet politicians called for unnecessary quarantines and spread information that HIV could be spread by sharing a glass. In fact, three weeks ago Pat Robertson stated on his 700 Club TV broadcast in response to whether a trip to Kenya would be risky “You might get AIDS in Kenya. The people have AIDS in Kenya. The towels could have AIDS”.
Recently, I watched a New York news conference that stated all persons who had contact with Ebola patients in Africa — including health care workers, who return home following stringent safety protocols — would be involuntarily quarantined for three weeks, regardless of if they had any symptoms. This involuntary quarantine goes against everything that scientists know about the way in which Ebola is transmitted. As you probably know, there has been no evidence suggesting that patients with the virus can infect other people until they display symptoms of the disease. Quarantines offer little in terms of public health benefit, yet it could potentially disrupt the response to this epidemic in Africa — where over 5,000 deaths have already been reported. The stigma has the potential to thwart efforts to recruit medical professionals to help fight the Ebola outbreak which could create even worse outcomes.
These policies cause the same kind of fear and stigma that characterized the early response to the HIV epidemic. The HIV/AIDS public health crisis was at first largely ignored while it appeared to affect only marginalized communities. Then as the virus took hold in the larger population, the fear and stigma became the enemies. Stigma still remains our biggest enemy in fighting AIDS. Talking about HIV is a simple and powerful weapon against misinformation and stigma. Wouldn’t it be nice if disclosing someone’s HIV status would be just like disclosing if he or she had diabetes. Wouldn’t others be more sympathetic than fearful?
The CDC estimates that one in five of the people who are infected have no knowledge of their infection. Without knowledge of their HIV status, they are unable to take advantage of treatment that will allow them to stay healthy and reduce the risk of transmitting the infection to their partners. Let’s use World AIDS Day as an opportunity to talk about getting tested for HIV. Facing an HIV test may not be easy, but it is the right thing to do. If you have been tested, then can you encourage others to get tested? Talk about it. Do you have adolescents that you care about? If they feel they have put themselves at risk, then encourage them to get tested. Eliminate stigma. Talk about the big white elephant. Lead by example. Make sure they know that HIV can happen to people like us, not just “those people”. I think that it is the fear of being judged that prevents so many people from being tested.
Denise Kipp is executive director of the Red Ribbon Project.