How Do We View HIV in the 21st Century?

I was having lunch with a close friend recently, having a catch up with him about his daily life and what he’d been up to. He’d been out for a birthday night out with a few friends of his and ran into someone that he’d had relations with in the past. Nothing serious, just a quick fumble. Anyway, after a quick chat, said fumble went to join his friends, and the birthday boy leaned in to ask my friend how he knew him, to which my friend explained. The reply he got shocked him. ‘You’d better stay away, he’s HIV.’

I’m sure there are varying degrees of shocked reactions amongst whoever is reading. There are probably quite a few jaws dropping and probably a lot of fist-clenching and swearing. My reaction at the time was to say, ‘People seriously still think like that?’ It shouldn’t really surprise me, but it does. We’re in 2015, and some people still really don’t understand anything about HIV.

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a virus that progressively shuts down your immune system, leaving it more susceptible to infections and cancers to the point that the body won’t be able to withstand. It can eventually lead to AIDS – Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome – if left untreated long enough. The virus is believed to have been discovered in primates in Africa, and transferred to humans in the late 20th century. The 80’s was known as the ‘AIDS crisis’ in America, where the virus was spreading at an alarmingly rapid rate. Survivors of the epidemic have revealed the terror they felt knowing that their friends were dying from a disease that no one really knew about, and the stigma they faced from people believing that it was a ‘gay disease’, a statement that has now thankfully been debunked.

But while it is scary to read something as jarring as that, and it’s important not to let ourselves get in that kind of position again, we also need to be aware that the AIDs crisis was over 30 years ago. It’s important to remember it, it’s important to honour the people who passed on because of it, but it’s also important to look at where we are now. People are living normal lives, thanks to our brilliant researchers, our improved knowledge and the expansion of medication.

I know people with HIV. I have slept with people who I have known to have HIV – and I’m sad to say that when I’ve told people this, I’ve been met with reactions varying from concerned to disgusted, which again paints a very inaccurate picture – and look at that, I don’t have HIV. People seem to think that it’s like a cold, that if someone has it, you can’t touch them, you can’t share a drink with them, you can’t hug them, and if they sneeze on you, you might as well start writing your will.

Here are a couple of myth busters for you: firstly, HIV is contracted through the blood and through semen. You can’t catch it through sweat, tears, saliva or just by touching someone. Secondly, HIV is not a death sentence. This isn’t the 80’s any more. We’ve come a long way (baby). While it is true that it is more dangerous if undetected and untreated, most HIV positive patients who are diagnosed have it under control thanks to medication – antiretroviral drugs now allow HIV positive people to live longer, more productive lives.

But the most important part of all of this? People who are living with HIV are just that: people. They’re human beings with families, with friends, with dreams, with thoughts and feelings that are constantly hurt by ignorant remarks made by people who can’t see past their own bigoted and narrow minded opinions. It doesn’t take long to do a bit of research on something, especially in the Google age. After all, we’re in the 21st century. And we’ve come a long way (baby).

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