Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Is It 1990 Again? HIV/AIDS Myths are Alive and ... Scary

"Don’t drink from the same glass of an AIDS patient." "AIDS may be able to spread by coughing or sneezing." "Having AIDS means you’re dead in 5 years." "AIDS meds can kill you quicker than AIDS." "You can tell someone has AIDS just by looking at them." "I can't get AIDS - it only happens to 'those people.'"

These are examples of statements and myths that were made back during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. The statements are also reflective of the derogatory language used during that time. No one would say these statements or use this language now, right? Wrong. Myths like these continue to spread quicker than HIV itself. This is a very scary scenario.

Over at thebody.com, a top HIV/AIDS online resource center for consumers and professionals, they field questions centered around myths on almost an hourly basis. Dr. Robert J. Frascino, aka "Dr. Bob," tackles these questions with the grace and utter snark of a true professional. Scroll down the list of questions posted by freaked out people from across the world and it becomes clear that there is still a lot of work to be done to combat these dangerous myths. (You can also read the posts and Dr. Bob's comments when you are in need of some serious belly laughs.)

Even popular culture and major cable networks are not immune to this flagrant display of HIV misinformation. Those who follow the Gay Rights cause no doubt remember the extensive coverage of The View debacle from a few months ago. To recap, Sherri Shepherd and guest host D.L. Hughley attempted to blame the spread of HIV in the black community on men who are on "the down low." This is utterly damaging and completely irresponsible behavior on the part all parties involved.

Stigma and discrimination toward those who are HIV+ can feed into the spreading of misinformation. Many of us have heard the line "that can't happen to me." Whether it's HIV, a car crash, or someone "defriending" you on Facebook (isn't that the worst?!), many people live in denial or somehow view their own life as superior to others to avoid what could very easily become a reality. This stigma fuels the stereotypes around HIV, and it leaves persons living with HIV feeling isolated and fearful of their own reality.

These are the very findings of a recent global survey of 2,035 people living with HIV conducted by the International Association for Physicians in AIDS Care (IAPAC). The results were presented (pdf) at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna back in July. Overall, respondents feel stigmatized and discriminated against. To sum up some of the findings: 38% of respondents felt as if other people were judging them; almost 50% said they had encountered someone who was afraid to have casual contact with them; 25% said that someone would not share food or drink with them; and 24% said that someone would not kiss them. All of this terrible behavior due to someone believing in a myth rather than seeking out the truth.

Sometimes there is avoidance of the issue entirely. Back in May of this year, the National Association of Social Workers - New Jersey Chapter (NASW-NJ) held their annual meeting of the profession. During the conference, I conducted a workshop on HIV and the importance of keeping this issue relevant in the work we all do. To my surprise, the topic generated the interest of around 15 professionals (compared with the over 350 who were registered in attendance for the 3-day conference). Those who were in the room got it; I was hoping to reach more of the ones who aren't quite there yet. After the workshop, a lovely and more seasoned social worker approached me. She let me know that she had been coming to these conferences for "many years" and that this topic would've been the keynote address 15 or 20 years ago. She seemed dismayed with the turnout as well. At the same time, we were all hopeful that with continued attention, the issue of HIV will not be silenced again as it was 20 years ago.

This is the real fear — that HIV/AIDS will become something to be ignored in the larger world. This cannot happen. We must continue to be a voice for HIV awareness. We can all educate those who are not completely aware of what it means to be HIV+ today. We can laugh when someone says something ridiculous about HIV, then quickly correct them and never laugh with them again. If these myths and misinformation prevail, HIV will spread at even more alarming rates than it is today. Further, those living with HIV will be even more segregated than they already are. That is when we, as a society, would feel real fear and panic. Let's all try to live like it's 2010; not 1990.

Photo Credit: Keith Haring

Source By Elizabeth Lombino is a Licensed Social Worker and freelance writer. She provides individual and group mental health services to HIV+ adults. (Change.Org)

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