By Myles Helfand
It’s a shame Donald Trump hasn’t said anything horrible during this campaign about people with HIV.
Earlier this summer, as thousands descended on Cleveland, Ohio, to mark the controversial ascension of a presidential candidate whose campaign went viral and consumed one of humanity’s most powerful political parties, a very different group of thousands gathered halfway around the world to mark the controversial ascension of efforts to eliminate one of the most devastating viruses humanity has ever known.
During the same week as the Republican National Convention in July, the 21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016) took place in Durban, South Africa. Occurring just once every two years in a different international city, the conference brings together more than 15,000 of the brightest minds and strongest spirits in the HIV community – a diverse mix of researchers, activists, policymakers and others who are on the front lines of the global effort to prevent HIV and improve the health of people already living with the virus.
The meeting came at a critical time, as the fight against HIV has reached a turning point: We have the means to (gradually) obliterate HIV from our species, and we even have an increasingly accepted plan to get there. What we don’t seem to have a lot of is political will, funding or widespread popular support.
In a reflection of this reality, here in the U.S., mainstream media set up camp at the political buffet in Cleveland and gorged itself on the fast-food bonanza of the Republican convention. AIDS 2016 was largely ignored, the health-conscious restaurant left to languish in an era when reckless abandon seems to be the flavor of the day.
Yet the conference had its fair share of tasty news – the kind of stuff that can fundamentally change opinions about HIV and the people living with it. For instance:
- We learned that almost 80,000 HIV-negative people in the U.S. are now regularly taking PrEP. (short for “pre-exposure prophylaxis,” a daily pill that virtually ensures a person won’t become HIV positive if taken correctly)
- We learned that PrEP is so effective, people appear to remain largely protected from HIV even if they only take the drug about once every two days.
- We were reminded that people with HIV who are on effective anti-HIV medications have almost zero chance of passing the virus on to someone else.
- So convincing is the science on this thatDemetre Daskalakis, M.D., one of the top HIV/AIDS officials in New York City (which is still home to more than 100,000 people living with HIV), recently endorsed a major new statement from experts publicly affirming that HIV-positive people have a “negligible risk” of transmitting HIV if they’re on meds and their viral load has been undetectable for the past six months.
In other words, we now know that people with HIV in the U.S. are almost completely uninfectious if they’re on successful treatment – and we also know that people without HIV can almost completely guarantee they’ll avoid infection if they take PrEP.
Remind me again why there are still such stringent restrictions on gay men who want to donate blood, and why HIV-positive people continue to receive lengthy prison sentences simply for having consensual sex with HIV-negative people? Remind me why a person’s HIV status still renders them a pariah across huge swaths of this country?
How is it that, in an age where it takes mere moments for popular anger to sweep the nation when an angry old man questions the patriotism of parents of a Muslim-American war hero, we’re still struggling 35 years later to sweep the nation with accurate, tolerant messaging about HIV?
Instead, the tremendous successes of scientific advances like PrEP – or another highly effective form of virus prevention, clean needle exchange – are met with skepticism, as practical discussions about putting the power of HIV prevention in the hands of more people become bogged down in a morass of moralism, bigotry and budget wrangling.
Heck, I still meet people who are surprised that people with HIV can live long, healthy lives while taking a single pill once a day – even though that’s been the case for a decade now. From a practical standpoint, managing HIV today is little different from managing high cholesterol, and a person on successful HIV treatment is roughly as likely to transmit the virus as a person on successful statins is to transmit an elevated LDL.
But the perception of HIV in our society remains frustratingly entrenched in an ignorant past. Even as the science moves farther and farther from the rhetoric, fear and ignorance remain the driving forces behind America’s understanding of HIV – in much the same way they have been the driving forces behind so much of this year’s presidential campaign.
It’s almost enough to make the dark, cynical side of my soul wish that Donald Trump would say something outlandish about people with HIV, in hopes that his explosive words would catalyze a wave of productive discussion and education about preventing and treating the virus. But I wouldn’t wish that kind of attention on anyone.
Instead, I remain hopeful that reason and compassion will win out in our country’s conversation about HIV. Publications like the one you’re reading right now help spread that hope and ensure that conversation happens. So can each of us, by ensuring we stay educated and that people close to us do the same.
Myles Helfand is the editorial director of TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com. Find him on Twitter @MylesatTheBody. This column is a project of Plus, Positively Aware, POZ, TheBody.com and Q Syndicate, the LGBT wire service. Visit their websites – http://hivplusmag.com, http://positivelyaware.com, http://poz.com and http://thebody.com – for the latest updates on HIV/AIDS.