The War on Stigma – Ignorance Is Our Greatest Enemy
As an advocate, I consider myself a warrior against the most dangerous threat facing people living with HIV: stigma.
Stigma is so powerful a force that it causes so many to remain out of care or even untested because they are either scared or just give up on themselves. No matter how many conversations, speeches, webinars, or classes I do, I cannot keep myself from talking about stigma. It’s a constant battle that feels like it has no end; but, every person I educate and every view I change is a victory.
Ignorance: a barrier to ending HIV stigma
Ignorance about HIV is the greatest barrier to actually ending stigma. We advocates sacrifice so much of ourselves to try to fight back. We spend all the time and energy we can afford - and then sometimes, what we can’t afford - to educate and end stigma for all of us living with HIV.
The issue we run into is that we have so many to reach and so few voices. We live in a world that avoids topics like HIV for the sake of comfort. Over time, we’ve been gaining momentum and support, but it still doesn’t feel like enough.
Key points to help end HIV stigma
HIV is an expansive field and there is a lot to learn. However, you don’t need to know everything. All that is needed is the crucial knowledge that is the most important to ending stigma.
HIV is not a death sentence. Louder for those in the back: HIV is NOT a death sentence. The 1980s were a very dark time for people living with HIV and society never fully recovered from that. Every time HIV is mentioned, the picture of someone wasting away on a bed comes to someone’s mind. Advances in antiretroviral therapy (ART) prevent this from happening.
People with HIV are not a threat to those around them. I still hear stories of people living with HIV informing their friends and families about their status and having them turn against them. It’s enraging to hear my peers face such willful ignorance from those that are supposed to care about them. We don’t need to eat off of separate dishware. You can’t get HIV from sharing the couch with us. You can’t get HIV from a sneeze. Possibly the most important thing: you can’t get HIV from a handshake or hug.
HIV treatment is expensive but accessible. ART can be highly expensive, HOWEVER, there are programs available that provide this medication for little to no cost, even without insurance. The same goes for your HIV specialist visits, which are necessary if you want to continue receiving medication. It is critical for all people living with HIV to get into care and stay in care.
People living with HIV can reach a point of viral suppression when HIV can’t be transmitted. Many have already heard of Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U), but there is more to it. U=U has a whole message attached to it. Everyone needs to learn the whole message for it to be effective. The more people that know about U=U, the more people will stop fearing us.
This knowledge is the best weapon we have to end the external AND internal stigma that people living with HIV face every day. This is a war we can win, but we advocates can’t do it alone.
I ask that everyone spreads this knowledge as much as possible, join our fight so we can improve the lives of all those living with HIV. You may actually save someone’s life. Fight on, fellow souls. Fight on.
At what age were you diagnosed with HIV?