December 1st is World AIDS Day. This is a time when we can reflect on what we now know about HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) and what this means for prevention and treatment.
The AIDS epidemic began in 1981 when five gay American men were reported to have lung infections caused by weakened immune systems. Today we know that HIV is a virus that weakens the immune system, and when someone’s immune system is badly damaged by an HIV infection this person may be diagnosed with AIDS, the final stage of an HIV infection. HIV does not discriminate by race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to discrediting theories claiming that HIV was caused by a “gay lifestyle” or that the virus is part of a government bioweapons program. The only explanation for such ridiculous theories is that at the time people were afraid of HIV and came up with all sorts of ideas to explain it. Fear and stigma kept thousands from seeking treatment and meant that people who were ill were not supported.
Today, being diagnosed with HIV is not a death sentence. Current treatment is so advanced that the amount of HIV found in an HIV-positive person’s blood may reach undetectable levels within six months. Though modern treatment works extremely well, people still fail to get tested or seek treatment because those old stereotypes started in the 1980s are still so stigmatizing. But this can change. Spread the word and not stigma and fear. Stay open-minded and learn what it means to practice safer sex and be tested, treated and live with an incurable STD, like HIV. By actively learning about STDs—not just the scary statistics—we can better care for ourselves and those living with HIV.
For more information on World AIDS Day and how to prevent HIV/AIDS, check out AIDS.gov.