Tomorrow is World AIDS Day, an opportunity to unite against the pandemic. It’s a chance to show our support for the 35 million people currently living with HIV, and to remember the nearly 30 million people killed by AIDS since the day it was first recognized in 1981.
HIV/AIDS is a ruthless killer, claiming thousands of lives every day. The best medical minds in the world are hunting for a vaccine—current antiretroviral treatments only delay the virus’ destructive power. Unfortunately, the disease will remain incurable for the foreseeable future. For now, the war on HIV/AIDS will continue as it has before, fought day by day.
A better understanding of HIV plays a critical part in this multi-pronged effort. UNAIDS, (the United Nations program tasked with fighting HIV) emphasizes awareness as one of the tools most integral to the goal of “zero new infections and zero AIDS-related deaths.”
Recent efforts are showing results: on November 20, UNAIDS reported that in the last decade, the number of new infections across 25 countries had dropped by more than 50 percent. In some sub-Saharan African countries, the number of new infections fell by over 70 percent and the number of people on antiretroviral treatment has increased by nearly two-thirds. These are promising numbers indeed, but there remains much to be done when it comes to increasing awareness even here at Bowdoin.
In a 2009 survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a non-partisan organization that focuses on health issues, half of American adults said they would be uncomfortable with an HIV-positive person preparing their food. Over a third of parents said they would “[be] very or somewhat uncomfortable” if someone who has HIV taught their child.
On a more positive note, the survey did reveal that acceptance of HIV-positive people in the workplace had increased to 44 percent. Yet this situation is far from perfect. The numbers reveal that a large segment of the population still believes in many misconceptions about the disease.
In the first few years following its discovery, HIV/AIDS was classified by various names that singled out those demographics believed to be the most likely carriers of the disease.
Once it was realized that HIV/AIDS affects people regardless of race, sexuality or gender, the name was changed to its current form, but it was too late to stop the scourge of unawareness.
This lack of knowledge isn’t limited to any one place. At Bowdoin, where we pride ourselves on the power of our liberal arts education to make us informed members of society, I spoke with students who believe in many of the same misconceptions that have existed since the 1980s. I was told adamantly that HIV could be transmitted through saliva or by touching an infected person, which is entirely untrue.
These students are by no means alone in the U.S. The KFF survey found that over a third of Americans held similarly misguided beliefs about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted, which helps explain why stigma against carriers is so persistent. These discriminatory tendencies have always struck me as odd, as it requires very little to ensure that you stay AIDS-free.
HIV can only survive under very specific conditions. The Center for Disease Control states clearly that the virus can be transmitted only through blood, semen, vaginal fluids, breast milk or any other bodily fluids that might contain blood. The list isn’t long.
There is no denying that we have come a long way since HIV/AIDS was first identified more than 30 years ago. The stigma that virus carriers once faced—presented so poignantly through films like “Philadelphia” and “Peter’s Friends”—is nowhere near as acute as it once was.
Yet until the truth about this disease overcomes the mistaken beliefs that have lasted so long, the war will be anything but won.