December 1st was World AIDS Day, and we are discussing information and initiatives about HIV and AIDS throughout the month. Yesterday, December 29th, President Donald Trump terminated the entire Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, providing the public with no reason for this dangerous action.
When the HIV epidemic broke out in the United States in the 1980s, so little was known about the disease and how it was transmitted; Americans were immediately seized with fear, suspicion, and homophobia. Was it contagious? Who could spread it, and how? Could anyone become infected?
Widespread fear and panic led to a wave of false claims about HIV and AIDS, many of which were rooted in the core belief that anyone with a positive diagnosis suffered from some kind of moral failing and “deserved” what they got. Among the dangerous falsehoods that became fact in the public’s mind were the ideas that HIV was only transmitted through sex, that it was strictly a gay or drug use-related disease, and that it always resulted in death. The false claims reveal a lot about the U.S. in the 1980s as a nation struggling with homophobia, negative stigmas about sex workers and drug users, and conservative ideas about sexual activity (though those are issues the country still faces today). But moreover, the epidemic was worsened by inaccurate information about HIV transmission and diagnosis, and myths about who could get it and how to prevent it.
The public’s false beliefs led to years of limited access to testing, treatment, and services, as well as increased vulnerability.
Unfortunately, many of those false beliefs — and the problems associated with them — still persist today.
In the age of “fake news” with a president who thinks it’s okay to do away with an entire council on HIV/AIDS, it’s more important than ever to know the facts about HIV and AIDS — lest the mistakes of the past continue to be repeated over and over again.
Right now, we are living in an age when our sitting president works tirelessly to undermine the press by labeling every credible report he disagrees with as “fake news.” Meanwhile, he uses tweets — which serves as actual statements from the White House — to share unconfirmed and unsubstantiated reports, as well as misleading propaganda videos, that support his platform and boost his base. His administration is stacked with climate change deniers and science skeptics whose harmful policies and practices threaten the future of the entire planet. Scientists across the country are fighting an administration that refuses to accept verified research and scientific data as fact.
The Trump team doesn’t seem to flinch when it comes to spreading false claims or outright lies (remember on the administration’s first day in office when then-press secretary Sean Spicer repeated bald-faced lies about the inauguration crowd size?). And when it comes to medicine, illness, and disease, fake news can mean a death sentence.
For decades, the public held damaging and inaccurate beliefs about HIV and AIDS that actually made the problem worse.
Each false claim — specifically the ones that passed moral judgement on those diagnosed — created painful stigmas about the disease that actually led to more positive diagnosis, and ultimately, more deaths.
Because of misinformation, people did not take the right steps to prevent transmission and actually increased their risk of getting HIV and giving it to others. People believed HIV and AIDS always ended in death, and therefore became far less likely to seek treatment.
It didn’t take long for a vicious cycle to develop: those who had HIV or AIDS faced unfair stigmas that prevented them from seeking treatment; meanwhile, already marginalized communities facing unfair stigmas daily for different reasons (their sexuality, race, income level, occupation, drug use) were kept from preventative care, testing, and treatment. The attitudes and fears associated with HIV and AIDS undermined America’s ability to detect, prevent, and treat a disease that was ravishing the population.
Since the 1980s, the number of HIV and AIDS cases have dropped dramatically, as more and more myths were debunked.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of new infections has dropped by over two-thirds. From 2011 to 2015, diagnoses among all women and all heterosexuals declined.
Still, despite all of the medical breakthroughs in the battle against HIV and AIDS, the United States is still struggling to fight the disease. Marginalized populations are still suffering disproportionately as a result of misinformation, limited healthcare, bias, prejudices, and stigmas — which have created serious barriers for specific people and populations trying to access prevention, care, and treatment. According to Avert, nearly one out of every eight people living with HIV are denied health services because of “stigma and discrimination.”
In an article by the Population Reference Bureau, AIDS epidemiologist and Emory University professor, Dr. James W. Curran said, “You have to recognize which kinds of stigma and discrimination are harmful for disease control… It depends on the country; it depends on the laws, the values, the particular subculture. The issues have to be identified and then they have to be combated. It’s like weeds in a garden; you have to keep pulling.”
Although the region only makes up around one-third of the U.S. population, 44% of all Americans diagnosed with HIV live in the south. According to officials, a combination of rampant drug use, high poverty levels, a fractured health care system, and stigma around HIV — stigma created by cultural myths about the disease — are creating a “perfect storm” for a massive epidemic. The Kaiser Family Foundation also reports that most of the women who are living with HIV/AIDS are Black women, and that same demographic also sees most of the the new diagnoses in the country.
One of the many ways states are fighting back is through education initiatives that inform a new generation of the threat of HIV and the serious health risks it poses.
Throughout the south and in Washington, D.C., local officials and organizations are emphasizing “prevention and education,” especially among the youth population who have seen their rates of HIV diagnosis double since 2000. Many officials cite the lack of youth education, an incomplete sexual education, and insufficient health care for young people as reasons why HIV cases have spiked.
While there is no instant solution for the HIV/AIDS-related stigma afflicting the United States, there are certain steps we can take to put an end to it, and it starts with knowing the facts.
“Whenever AIDS has won, stigma, shame, distrust, discrimination and apathy was on its side,” argued Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS, in an 2012 blog post on The Huffington Post.
It’s time to end HIV/AIDS stigma, and start spreading real news about prevention, detection, and treatment. If the sitting president won’t, we will.