Originally published June 28, 2018
A few days ago I saw a fellow colleague tweet about a patient who people would never suspect to have HIV, because she was gorgeous, plump and healthy and reminded us that HIV does not have a look.
Yet, we seem to judge someones presumed status based on their outward physical appearance.
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus and can lead to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), my pinned tweet is a simplified thread on what it is. Check it out here. The virus is spread in very selective ways, through the fluids: blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk. That means a child may get it from its mother, it can be passed on through unprotected sex, dirty and used needles can spread the disease and rarely blood transfusions.
A few times I’ve been involved with treating seropositive patients in clinics and all I remember thinking when I looked at them was that people would never know. There were patients of all ages, all sizes, shapes and colour. Patients had different life stories, sexualities and professions. And I thought to myself, why are we so convinced that HIV has a look?
This stigma that we consistently propagate does us more harm than good. HIV has become an easily treated chronic disease that will kill you no faster than diabetes. In fact, well controlled HIV behaves much better than well controlled diabetes, because the destruction is merely slowed not stopped. Persons who live with HIV can live for the same life expectancy as someone without, so why are so many people dying of AIDS?
If we could just stop using HIV and AIDS as ways to disrespect persons, beat them down or make fun of them, that would be a small step towards removing stigma. If when we spoke about HIV/AIDS we would use the correct terminologies, the correct facts we could reduce stigma. Everyone needs to know about HIV because everyone can be affected by HIV. HIV is not the flu, you can feel fine for years before it affects your health. With the advances in medicine I don’t think anyone should be dying of AIDS, no one should be progressing to AIDS in Jamaica. Not where testing and treatment are so accessible, yet our society is dragging us down. The fear of HIV is dragging us down. The fact that people just rather not know.
As a country, many of us are participating in unsafe sexual practices, deciding who and who we should sleep with unprotected based on how they look. How strong is their body, how plump they are… sometimes we even use social status. I don’t know how many times I have to say HIV does not discriminate before it is understood, you cannot look at someone in the eye and know their status.
So we need to stop, we need to stop with the unsafe sex, we need to stop with the assuming, we need to stop being afraid of knowing, we need to stop being afraid of getting tested. We have grown as a country, we have excellent facilities put in place to handle the psychological toll of being newly diagnosed, we have the facilities in place to provide medication and frequent check ups. Persons are living with HIV, living long, healthy full lives filled with love, adventure and family. I commend every advocate in this country that owns their status and speaks out against HIV stigma, because people can be cruel, people can be mean.
You are not lesser than for having HIV.
I encourage everyone, to learn a little more about HIV. Dispel your myths.
…and most importantly….
Don’t be afraid to get tested, don’t be afraid of the results. Get tested now.
Samantha C. Johnson