World AIDS Day and The Hope for Greater Awareness

December 3, 2013

Paulo Michelini recently obtained his MBA from Loyola University in Chicago. He’s currently serving as an AmeriCorps member at AIDS Alabama and plans to attend medical school in the fall.

My AmeriCorps service assignment at AIDS Alabama has been nothing short of incredible. I serve in a particular program that cares for individuals that are HIV-positive and have a serious mental illness. It is humbling, rewarding, dynamic and extremely interesting. So when asked to write this post in recognition of World AIDS Day, which was December 1st, I was elated and anxious to share my experience. However, I should make clear that this post is not a celebration of a singular day, but instead an expression of hope for greater awareness for HIV/AIDS every day.

World AIDS Day instills curiosity about what and how much has changed since the first reports of severe immune deficiency among gay men in 1981 and since the identification of the virus. According to 2010 reports from the CDC and aids.gov, there are 1.2 million Americans currently living with HIV/AIDS (out of the 34 million people infected worldwide). An estimated 20 percent of Americans infected are unaware of it, and 63 percent of new infections in the U.S. are among “men who have sex with men.” Today, with the advancements in research, the development of new medications and the practice of anti-retroviral therapy, HIV-positive individuals are able to live healthy and productive lives nearly identical to those without the virus. 

While technology and medical advances have progressed steadily since 1981, there has not yet been significant change in the general public’s attitude about the issue. We are no longer in the days when HIV/AIDS was believed to be a “gay man’s disease,” but prejudice and ignorance are still present in alarmingly unacceptable levels. I believe HIV/AIDS stigma is still rooted in its history and the fear it instilled in people, which is one of the reasons why it is a much larger social issue than other incurable and serious diseases like Hepatitis C or Polio. It was unexplainable, severe and concentrated to a single, discriminated group of individuals. 

HIV is a blood-born and sexually-transmitted pathogen, therefore for one to become infected he or she must have blood-to-blood contact or have unprotected sex with an infected individual. But there are many common misconceptions about people living with HIV/AIDS. Let me share how I interact with the HIV-positive clients I serve: I administer their medications, I tutor them in subjects of their interest, I cram into a van with them when taking them shopping or to any other obligations, I help them clean their rooms, I console them, we hug, we dance, some give me good-morning kisses on the cheek, we eat together, and I even clip finger nails and work on other personal hygiene issues. These are the same things anyone would do for someone they care for on a daily basis. And that’s the point. One can have a normal life with every day interactions.

I am saddened whenever I hear stories from clients about having been subjected to prejudice. Worse, I am saddened by the fact that, due to fear and public shame, few HIV-positive individuals I know are willing to publicly talk about their lives. However, I think attitudes are beginning to change as new generations grow more open minded. Proper, unbiased education is the appropriate solution. And, although historically underfunded, I hope that along with the medical and public health community, we can use education to move forward with awareness of such health disparities as HIV/AIDS. I know this is a difficult and multi-faceted problem, but I do hope that we will see an end, or at least a great reduction, in HIV transmission in my lifetime.
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