Back to Life, Positively 2016 Index…

Since 1988, December 1st has been designated World AIDS Day as an opportunity for people all over the world to be a part of the fight against HIV, provide support to those who are living with HIV and to honor and remember the people who have died as a result. Some people may decide to wear a red ribbon and change their social media profile for the day, but after December 1st, AIDS loses its novelty and the conversation switches to the next trending topic. Why is that? Why is AIDS “not sexy” all year round?

It is generally foreseeable for the media conversation to shift regularly among a range of issues that appeal to a variety of people. News outlets should definitely be mindful to cover a wide range of topics that vary in areas of interest that are of the utmost importance to society as a whole, which begs the question: Is AIDS not important?

To be elevated to a “level of importance,” a topic should reasonably affect a substantial amount of people and have the ability to make a serious impact on your life. If you were to browse the news for “important issues” lately, what would you find? The next Iphone release date? Beyoncé’ sneezed? Yet globally, it is estimated that 34 million people have HIV and AIDS. Despite the virus being identified in 1984, more than 35 million people have died of HIV or AIDS since then, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history. How is that fact alone NOT important?

With HIV/AIDS still being an important issue that affects many people, why isn’t there consistent conversation all year round? While the education surrounding HIV/AIDS has expanded by leaps and bounds, the work cannot end there. Keeping the conversation going is a crucial part of ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic once and for all. People know that HIV is a serious disease that can lead to death if not treated, but what most people do not know is that being HIV-positive is not a death sentence, which is often the assumption.

We are lucky that in recent years, we have seen radical medical advancements that will forever change the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS and for those who are vulnerable to HIV. Once a person learns that they are HIV-positive, they can get linked to HIV medical care early and start antiretroviral therapy (ART) to “virally suppress” the virus. “Viral suppression” occurs when a person starts antiretroviral therapy (ART) and reduces their viral load to an undetectable level, which means that they have very low levels of HIV in their body. Viral suppression does not mean that a person is cured of HIV since HIV still remains in the body, but it significantly reduces the risk of that person transmitting HIV to another person. In 2016, people can learn that they are HIV-positive and rest assured that if they adhere to their medication and stay in care, they can keep the virus under control and ultimately live healthy lives.

The Southeastern United States is facing an undue burden when it comes to HIV. The South has the highest HIV diagnosis rate of any US region. In 2014, more than half of national HIV diagnoses reported were located in the Southern United States. The Deep South (the nine-state region comprised of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas) has the highest rate of HIV-related deaths of any U.S. region.

Reading statistics like that, it appears that North Carolina could be on the verge of a potential HIV epidemic if state and local governments do not immediately take action and yet we have not heard about the pressing need to address the epidemic in our state. What will it take for this issue to rise to the level of the importance that it deserves? The small community of Austin in Scott County, Ind., made national headlines in 2015 when it suffered from the largest HIV outbreak in its state’s history. According to the CDC, Austin (population: 4,200) had a higher incidence of HIV than “any country in sub-Saharan Africa” and “have had more people infected with HIV through injection drug use than in all of New York City last year.” Contributing factors to the Austin outbreak eerily mirror conditions that we currently experience right here in the state of North Carolina: poverty, addiction, doctor shortages, gaps in health care coverage and a serious lack of HIV-related funding, services and awareness, especially in rural communities where people are most vulnerable to HIV. North Carolina currently has two cities on the CDC’s list of the top 25 US cities and metropolitan areas with the highest rates of new HIV infections: Charlotte and Greensboro. We can read the latest CDC statistics and be disheartened with its findings, yet, for some reason, still not be disheartened enough to act. What seems to be a barrier that is preventing us from making strides on this topic?

A huge hurdle to overcome in continuing the conversation surrounding HIV/AIDS is the harsh stigma that people living with HIV/AIDS deal with every day. The effects and consequences of stigma and discrimination can appear in many different ways. People could potentially be shunned by their family, friends, colleagues and other members of the community, while other people face poor treatment in healthcare and education situations, and psychological damage. All of these factors limit access to HIV testing, treatment and services. The fear of stigma and discrimination is often stated as the main reason why people do not get tested, disclose their HIV status and take antiretroviral (ART) drugs. When stigma prevents people from getting tested, more people are unaware of their status and are diagnosed late, when the virus may have already progressed to AIDS. In addition to increasing the likelihood of transmitting HIV to others, a late diagnosis makes treatment less effective and can cause a preventable early death. We must do what we can to reduce the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. We must do our part to educate those around us generally about HIV/AIDS, be open about getting tested regularly and be vocal when we uplift and support the HIV-positive people around us. Imagine if our news and social media timelines became flooded with headlines that reduced HIV/AIDS stigma instead of fueling it? We all have the power to not only push the HIV/AIDS conversation forward, but to shape the narrative. Until we do our part to both start and shape the conversation, stigma will continue to be a barrier to HIV testing and treatment services, which are key to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic once and for all.

With the stakes so high, how can we afford to NOT make AIDS sexy? The state of HIV/AIDS today is different than it was 20 years ago. Today, there are numerous treatment and education plans available to help eradicate this disease, potentially in our lifetime. With all that being said, let’s make World AIDS Day EVERY DAY!

info: Christina Adeleke, Esp. is the communications and development coordinator with the North Carolina AIDS Action Network.