I have been learning about HIV/AIDS for the last couple months to become an ally and lessen the stigma around this illness. I believe that as a member of the student body of this campus it is my responsibility to make sure the conversation about HIV is not silenced. I write this piece as hope to spread the knowledge, erase stigma and open the hearts and minds of the student body here at the University of Georgia.
HIV is a virus which is contracted through intravenous infection or unprotected sex. HIV cannot infect you without the virus entering into your blood or cells. Many people living with HIV report feeling like an outcast because people are afraid to touch them, hug them, shake their hand or share food with them. We can be people who help ease this experience for many in our community. I say “our community” because people living with HIV are everywhere, in school, in church, in campus clubs. They are living and breathing just like us and deserve to be seen and respected. Imagine if all of your friends stopped calling and hanging out with you because they had incorrect ideas about you as a person. Imagine if you turned to church for community and comfort and they offered to pray away the gay or simply turned you away. This happens to people living with HIV all of the time. Why? Because we are not talking about HIV and erasing the false beliefs and misconceptions.
You cannot contract HIV by sharing food, touching, kissing, hugging, from someone sneezing on you or coughing. You can’t get it from breathing the same air. You can make people feel alone and depressed because of your prejudice or misinformation. You can miss out on knowing someone wonderful because you hang on to bias or fear. You can perpetuate stigma and bias by doing nothing or spreading wrong information. You can change your own life or someone else’s life by having the correct information and compassion for others. You can help save someone’s life by getting tested and encouraging others to do the same.
HIV needs to be on the agenda of the national and local conversation, and it starts with us. While HIV is now something a person can have and live a long and happy life, it doesn’t mean that people don’t die from complications of the illness every day. It is important that people who do not have the illness protect themselves. Huge hindrances to preventing the virus from spreading is a stigma against testing or belief that it is a risk. HIV does not discriminate, it can and does infect straight people, people who don’t do drugs, people of all colors, old and young and nationalities. Some people are born with HIV. Most new diagnoses are of black and brown men, but black women are also having a high rate of new diagnosis. That doesn’t mean that white people are safe from the disease. College-aged kids are the highest age risk to become infected. The highest rate of new cases and existing cases of HIV are in the South. According to Emory University, metro Atlanta has the fourth-highest HIV rate among major cities in the U.S. Many people are diagnosed in the later stages of the illness because the symptoms are often similar to a cold or the flu. Antiretroviral medications are extremely expensive, causing many people to be more susceptible to AIDS.
Because of the stigma and silence around HIV, the illness continues to be poorly understood, underdiagnosed and highly prevalent in the U.S. It is very possible you know someone with HIV and just don’t know that they are diagnosed with the virus. HIV is much like racism and poverty – it will not be cured or eradicated until more people talk about it and work to prevent it. People with the disease will continue to die from preventable symptoms, people will continue to get infected, people will continue to feel shame and embarrassment for something they cannot change, people will continue to judge others with the illness, people will continue to put themselves at risk and people will continue to believe HIV is not their problem. That is, of course, unless we take action now.