HIV can be treated, but stigma kills
Three decades ago, receiving an HIV diagnosis was comparable to being handed a death sentence. But today, this is no longer the case.
Advances in HIV research have led to treatments that can make the virus undetectable and untransmittable in less than six months, a fact that goes overlooked by many. Treatments today can make HIV entirely manageable for individuals.
However, thousands of Americans are still dying of HIV-related causes each year, regardless of the fact that HIV treatments are accessible and effective. So where is the disconnect coming from?
On the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day, The Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at Duke University hosted a series of events surrounding around this year's international theme: "Know Your Status."
One of these events was a panel discussion featuring three prominent HIV/AIDS treatment advocates on campus, Dr. Mehri McKellar, Dr. Carolyn McAllaster, and Dr. Kent Weinhold, who answered questions regarding local policy and current research at Duke.
The reason HIV continues to spread and kill, Dr. McKellar explained, is less about accessibility, and more about stigma. Research has shown that stigma shame leads to poor health outcomes in HIV patients, and unfortunately, stigma shame is a huge problem in communities across the US.
Especially in the South, she said, there is very little funding for initiatives to reduce stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, and people are suffering as a result.
In 2016, the CDC reported that the South was responsible for 52 percent of all new HIV diagnoses and 47 percent of all HIV-related deaths in the US.
If people living with HIV don't feel supported by their community and comfortable in their environment, it makes it very difficult for them to obtain proper treatment. Dr. McKellar's patients have told her that they don't feel comfortable getting their medications locally because they know the local pharmacist, and they're ashamed to be picking up HIV medications from a familiar face.
In North Carolina, the law previously required HIV-positive individuals to disclose their status and use a condom with sexual partners, even if they had received treatment and could no longer transmit the virus. Violating this law resulted in prosecution and a prison sentence for many individuals, which only enforced the negative stigma surrounding HIV. Earlier this year, Dr. McAllaster helped efforts to create and pass a new version of the law, which will make life a lot easier for people living with HIV in North Carolina.
So what is Duke doing to help the cause? Well, In 2005, Duke opened the Center for AIDS Research (also known as CFAR), which is now directed by Dr. Kent Weinhold. In the last decade, they have focused their efforts mainly on improving the efficacy of the HIV vaccine. The search for a successful vaccine has been long and frustrating for CFAR and the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, but Dr. Weinhold is optimistic that they will be able to reach the realistic goal of 60 percent effectiveness in the future, although he shied away from predicting any sort of timeline for this outcome.
Duke also opened a PrEP Clinic in 2016 to provide preventative treatment for individuals who might be at risk of getting HIV. PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis, and it is a medication that is taken before exposure to HIV to prevent transmission of the virus. Put into widespread use, this treatment is another way to reduce negative HIV stigma.
The problem persists, however, that the people who most need PrEP aren't getting it. The group that has the highest incidence of HIV is males who are young, black and gay. But the group most commonly receiving PrEP is older, white, gay men. Primary care doctors, especially in the South, often won't prescribe PrEP either. Not because they can't, but because they don't support it, or don't know enough about it.
And herein lies the problem, the panelists said: Discrimination and bias are often the results of inadequate education. The more educated people are about the truth of living with HIV, and the effectiveness of current treatments, the more empathetic they will be towards HIV-positive individuals.
There's no reason for the toxic shame that exists nationwide, and attitudes need to change. It's important for us to realize that in today's world, HIV can be treated, but stigma kills.