This week, in the wake of Charlie Sheen’s announcement that he is HIV positive, for the first time since Magic Johnson’s disclosure in 1991 we’re beginning a much-overdue national conversation about HIV and AIDS.
This isn’t a good thing; it’s a great thing. It’s a huge opportunity for us to share and educate. As many of you have already seen, it’s not going to be pretty. Journalists will ask insensitive questions, well-intentioned people will spread misinformation, and hateful people will use this as an opportunity to spread hate and fear. Please do what you can (while protecting your own emotional and physical well-being) to use this opportunity to bring up some of the facts below.
- HIV is transmitted ONLY via blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk. It is NOT transmitted by saliva or animals (including mosquitoes), nor is it airborne.
- People living with HIV who are on medications (called antiretrovirals) and have undetectable viral loads, like Sheen, cannot transmit the virus (via sexual intercourse) to others with healthy immune systems.
- Thanks to these medications, people living with HIV who receive treatment live full, healthy lives with only rare complications or AIDS diagnosis. HIV is NOT a death sentence.
- One in eight Americans living with HIV don’t know it. Because of the way it multiplies untreated, they most easily transmit the virus. Early detection results in more successful treatment and reduced risk of transmission. Therefore it is vital that everyone get tested regularly for HIV. Current tests look for antibodies that can take as long as three months to appear after an infection, making frequent testing especially important to anyone who is sexually active or shares IV drug needles with others. (Many states, including Minnesota, permit distribution of clean needles to reduce risk among IV drug users. Contact Minnesota AIDS Project for information.)
- People who do not have HIV may take a daily pill, Truvada, for what is called Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or “PrEP.” Recent studies show this to be up to 99 percent effective in preventing HIV transmission. Thanks to similar medication, HIV-positive mothers may conceive and give birth to healthy babies without the virus. Birth-control pills and spermicide do not protect anyone from HIV or any other sexually transmitted infections (STI). Only condoms can prevent most bacterial and viral STIs. Herpes and HPV can be transmitted despite condom use, though at lower rates, and you can ask your doctor for vaccines for STIs including Hepatitis A and B, and HPV, the viruses that cause some warts and cancers.
- HIV is not a “gay disease” or an “African disease.” The virus doesn’t choose some people over others. People of every religion, race, sexual orientation and political party live with HIV. In fact, the easiest way to contract HIV is through IV drug use (90 percent chance of infection per exposure vs. less than 1 percent infection chance per sexual exposure).
- There is no vaccine or “cure” for HIV. Many brilliant people are working hard to create one. While many recent discoveries and test trials hold promise, we are years from an available vaccine.
- HIV did not originate in humans as the result of sexual activity with animals, or as part of a government or spiritual effort to eradicate certain people. Similar viruses exist in many different species, and it is believed that Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) (like other viruses) first mutated and jumped to humans through food preparation around 1920 in Leopoldville, now called Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
- Most important: People living with HIV are our friends, neighbors, family, coworkers and loved ones. They are to be treated as you would like to be treated. They don’t “deserve” HIV or AIDS. Everything we do in life has inherent risks, some greater than others, and we strive to be educated to reduce those risks, but no one has the right to criticize someone for having HIV, because no one lives life completely free of known risks. If someone says anyone deserves HIV, ask them if they smoke and therefore deserve cancer, or do they ski/snowboard and deserve to die like Sonny Bono, or if they speed or forget to wear a seat belt and should be in a serious car crash. No one deserves these things.
HIV is a nasty, complex virus that adapts and replicates quickly. Humans, especially Americans, stigmatize things related to sex and drugs (but we love rock ‘n roll!). Because this virus can be transmitted through sexual contact and drug use, we’ve attached an immense amount of stigma to this condition and often forget it affects all of us. 1.5 million people died from HIV/AIDS in 2013 alone, yet we talk about far less prevalent/fatal conditions more, because they don’t involve sex.
You can shift this conversation from who deserves what, or focusing on our differences, to what we can all do to help and show respect to those living with HIV, and stop the spread of the most infectious killer on the planet. Challenge people to make the conversation constructive and not destructive. Use this opportunity to create positive change. We owe it to the 39 million amazing people whose lives were cut short by AIDS, to the 35 million people currently living with HIV, and to everyone to ensure those numbers stop increasing.
Thank you for anything you’re able to contribute to this conversation. Together we can do something amazing. For more information, please visit this website.
Jason Little is a former staff and current volunteer HIV and Hepatitis C instructor for Minnesota AIDS Project, and serves on the HIM Program Advisory Board for Hennepin County Health Department. He is an active leader and advocate in the Twin Cities LGBT community, was awarded the title of Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2014, and has published stories about sexual health in Twin Cities Gay Scene magazine, and Colu.mn. He lives in North Minneapolis with his fiancé, Mark.
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