Complacency and Stigma: Is HIV No Longer a Death Sentence?

"Although things are obviously not as bad as they were in the 1980s, what message do you have as an advocate that we should be concerned about regarding HIV/AIDS today?"

Off the heels of our five year anniversary for Human Intonation , where the core mission of our charity-driven apparel brand raised the discussion around the significance of HIV prevention, testing, and treatment, I was recently asked in an interview to give my response to the question, "Although things are obviously not as bad as they were in the 1980s, what message do you have as an advocate that we should be concerned about regarding HIV/AIDS today?" Immediately I felt myself cringe as I received the question and began to feel my temperature rise as the deep rooted feelings that fuel my passions started to surface. I had to pause.

First acknowledging that I understand where the kind of statement that things are obviously not as bad as they used to be can come from, I shared that from my point of view that such statements are as potentially dangerous as they are beneficial in curbing the negative stigma that has been attached to HIV/AIDS for many years. There is a double edge sword to the progress we have made to eradicate the kind of stigma around HIV and AIDS that garners fear in the hearts of those that commit hate crimes against homosexuals, and those who in spite of their own risky behavior have never been tested. On the other hand, rhetoric that HIV is no longer a death sentence can potentially spawn complacency and a false sense of security that HIV as a "chronic disease", in such areas as the U.S. and Europe, does not require the same utmost precaution to protect oneself and those that we engage with, and can sometimes ignore the extent to which the quality of life of the person infected becomes less than advantageous. Likewise, advancements in treatment as prevention are not a green light to rest on our laurels.

It is not that the statistics are not true that many people today are testing positive for HIV, getting into treatment, and living a relatively long and "normal" life. Starting treatment early can improve a positive person's quality of life and longevity along with preventing transmission to others, however ... that is just not everyone's story. Perspective must be kept in mind that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, affects everyone differently, and the outcome of treatment or non-treatment in one positive person may not be the outcome in another.

By the age of 27, I had experienced the loss of two people dear to me in a way that as a child of the '80s, I never would have considered likely by the late 2000s. Both died from complications of living with AIDS. Both were under the age of 30. I remember the day my cousin Wesley called me to tell me that he had tested positive for HIV. Being the same age as him, I did not think twice about the impact that this news would have on our lives. Wesley's HIV status did not change my love for him, but his death five months after that phone call, coupled with the loss of a second friend in five years hits me every time I hear the words "HIV is no longer a death sentence."

In our work to raise awareness around HIV, I implore colleagues and constituents alike to understand that changing the stigma around HIV/AIDS must be handled with care. Messages from experts, doctors and the media that bombard the public with the notion that testing positive for HIV is no longer a death sentence led me to believe there was nothing to worry about when the people in my life became HIV positive. Today, our platform for Human Intonation has expanded from solely focusing on prevention, to fully advocating in all areas of prevention, testing, and treatment out of understanding the degree to which HIV still has the potential to impact the person infected and those closest to them now as much as it did thirty years ago.

On this World AIDS Day our call to action is to remember the basics. In spite of advances in treatment and increases in average life span of those living with HIV over the last four decades, first steps such as using protection, getting tested, and knowing one's status are and continue to be mainstays in the effort to end the HIV epidemic in the U.S. and abroad. The latest statistics from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicating that the rate of new HIV infection among Women of Color in the U.S are declining for the first time are not the result of complacency, resting on the idea that HIV is no longer a death sentence. Instead interests at all level from government to local community organizations targeting subpopulations have actively taken a stand to reverse the trend. The same applies to people from all walks of like. If your HIV status is negative, taking steps to remain negative, including preventative treatment where appropriate is as critical as a person who becomes HIV positive seeking treatment as quickly as possible. Today we remember that five months may no longer be the norm, but it only takes one loss to give us a wake-up call.