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The myths end here, stop the HIV stigma

Flickr: Tony Webster

A few days ago I was walking out of the subway station and a homeless man was sitting there with a sign that said, “Homeless. HIV Positive. Need Help.” My initial thought when I saw it was that I thought it was interesting that he put HIV positive on the sign, because I would assume most people would run away with a fear of contracting HIV.

But then I thought about where we are today in the fight against this disease and I wondered if the stigma against HIV/AIDS is still that drastic. The United States faced an HIV epidemic in the 1980s that injected a lot of fear into the issue because there were so many unknown factors. At one point, it was believed by many that only the homosexual population could contract the disease, and for that reason it was first referred to as GRID (gay-related immune deficiency).

In a 1981 New York Times article, the Center for Disease Control spokesperson Dr. James Curran was quoted saying that there was no apparent danger to nonhomosexuals from HIV. ''The best evidence against contagion [HIV],'' he said, ''is that no cases have been reported to date outside the homosexual community or in women.''

While this false belief has been dispelled, HIV is still associated with homosexuality, therefore it faces much of the discrimination that the LGBQT community is still dealing with.

It is also often assumed that HIV infection occurs because of irresponsible behavior through sex and drug use, which is why I assume so few people probably gave that homeless man a second glance.

The other contributing factor is that HIV and AIDS are life-threatening conditions, associated with death, and many do not have accurate information about how it is transmitted or treated.

So let’s stop the myths in their tracks right now. HIV cannot be transmitted via surfaces, air, insect bites, sterile needles, water or kissing (unless the two people have sores or bleeding gums).

While it is understandable to be afraid of contracting HIV, it is irrational to think that helping the cause or just talking to affected individuals involves any risk. There’s no reason why people with HIV/AIDS should be shunned from society.

The truth is that AIDS no longer has to be a death sentence. Antiretroviral medication has been developed as the main treatment for HIV, so nowadays if treatment is started early, a person is likely to live a normal life expectancy. There can even be a point in one’s treatment where it is very difficult to transmit the disease to others.

It is truly amazing how far things have come since HIV/AIDS was first discovered, in fact there are a lot of ways that HIV/AIDS has changed over the past thirty years.

But there are still huge barriers ahead if we are to get to an AIDS-free generation, namely stigma.

Stigmas are dangerous. They keep people from seeking help and stop others from wanting to. The World Health Organization says that fear of stigma and discrimination is the main reason why people are reluctant to get tested, disclose their HIV status, and take antiretroviral drugs (the main form of treatment for HIV/AIDS).

Let's end the stigma. Spread accurate information instead of fear and get involved in the issue however you can. For any New Yorkers out there, the 30th Annual AIDS Walk is happening soon, on May 17. Sign up, raise money for the cause, or just go walk with some friends to do whatever you can to stop the HIV stigma.