The resent passing of another HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus) testing awareness day this summer made me think about some of my old clients. I was a state certified HIV test counselor for the state of Michigan at the agency where I worked. This meant that I administered HIV tests for those people who believed that they may have been put at risk for contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This was a stressful job, and some days, down right awful. The awful days, as you can imagine, were the ones when I had to tell a client that they had tested positive for the HIV antibodies. Thankfully, I only had to tell a few people, but those few individuals are forever carved into my mind. I will never forget them or the day that I had to tell them that they most likely were infected with a life altering infection. These people were young, old, and middle aged. They were people not unlike me. Hard working, dedicated to family, goal oriented, future driven. They were beautiful people that are going through life with an ugly, incurable illness. Unfortunately for me, since these individuals tested anonymously, I will never know their true identities and will probably never know how they are and if they are living healthy productive lives, or suffering and alone.
Guess what? You could be infected. You could be at risk. You should be one of those clients that walks into an office and asks to be tested. HIV doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if you are rich or poor. If you are male or female. Gay or straight. It doesn’t care how old you are. We have babies in this country still being born with the virus because moms don’t know they are infected. Parents and grandparents are increasingly being diagnosed with HIV. Yes, you need to know that your mom and dad or grandmom and grandpa still have sex. They still can potentially be infected if they are involved with someone sexually that has the virus. HIV is still out there. It is still killing people. We do not know yet how to stop it. Doctors and researchers are developing new ways all the time to slow it down, limit its effects on people’s lives, but we are no where near eliminating it from our world.
I have been working with educating about HIV for around 20 years. I am sad and horrified to look at the statistics and see that we are no better off now than we were 20 years ago. The numbers keep rising. There is much in the news about HIV/AIDS rates in Africa and other countries, but I want to remind people that in your own backyard, HIV is still raging. We need to remind people that there are safer ways to behave, to reduce the risk of the infection spreading. The best way to reduce the risk of spreading HIV is to know your own status. There are testing sites available in your state. Get a test. They only take a short time to administer, and usually you can do it without giving blood. You can, in many cases, do it anonymously. Testing is the only way that you will know if you are infected. The earlier the diagnosis, the better the prognosis. Don’t assume you only associate with non-risky people. You can’t possibly know. Ask anyone who has HIV.
As a society, we need to become more comfortable with talking about uncomfortable topics. We need to talk to potential partners. We need to talk to our doctors. We need to talk to our friends. I remember thinking when I was a teenager that I wanted to be just like Dr. Ruth Westheimer when I grew up. She was so great about telling it like it was. She called a penis a penis and was proud to do so. I admired that in a time when people didn’t talk to teens about sex, she was willing to. Today, we seem to only talk to teens. We stop talking once that teen grows up. They has become very apparent due to the increasing number of adults over the age of 50 who are becoming infected. So now I am talking. The lessons are fairly simple. Know your HIV status. Know the infectious disease status of your sex partner, or don’t have sex. Use a condom. Don’t share needles if you are using drugs. If it isn’t possible to refuse every time, do it some of the time. Every time you think about your health and act positively for it, you reduce your risk and add another day to the fight against this illness. Find support. There are many wonderful agencies in communities across this country that offer education, help, and the things you need to live a safer life. Everyone has their own story and their own reason not to live safely. These agencies have been trained to help each individual create their own specific plan of action.
There are some people who feel that the drugs are available, so it is worth the risk. Certainly we risk getting the flu or infections by going out into the general public with the understanding that there are medications available to make us better if we get sick. So why is HIV different? One reason is that the drugs are expensive. Many people don’t have the insurance coverage to help pay for them, and even if they do, some drugs are hard to come by in certain areas. Secondly, the side effects for many of these drugs are brutal. I know people living with the virus who have chosen to deal with the disease rather than be restricted by the drugs. Another reason is that when you get Strep throat, you take an antibiotic for 10 days and you are done with that medication and that infection. If you get infected with HIV, you take medication for the rest of your life, with the added stress that if you forget to take it to often, it may become ineffective for you, all the while knowing that you never are going to be free of HIV.
It is as simple and straightforward as all that. Dr. Ruth couldn’t say it plainer. HIV can’t just be thought about on testing days or awareness days. It needs to be thought about, talked about, and dealt with daily. It needs to have people like you and me to continue to fight the fight for comprehensive sexuality education. To continue to educate everyone about what HIV is about and who it affects. We need to talk equally to young and old alike about the risks that they take with their lives. And mostly we need to not forget those that have died and continue to be infected and affected by a disease that is so easy to prevent. I know that I will always think about my clients and will pray that they are living happy healthy lives.