Columns, Opinion

American Protest: Erase the stigma around AIDS and HIV by educating people

The second semester of my freshman year of college, I took a U.S. history course that focused on 1865 to the present. I figured it would be an easy A since I took AP U.S. history in high school and learned all of the material.

It was a pretty easy course, but I soon found out I did not learn some very important parts of our country’s history, especially pertaining to the history of the LGBT+ community.

I soon realized that many curriculums do not include the severity of the HIV and AIDS crisis and how many people died as a result of this crisis. I never knew that between 1980-2000, there had been over 448,000 deaths as a result of this epidemic.

I did not know that on Oct. 11, 1987, an AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in order to get the government to acknowledge the crisis and take action.

At the peak of the crisis, men and women died in tragic numbers, specifically gay and bisexual men. For a long time, the stigma of homosexuality kept the disease from being taken seriously. Many thought of it as a “gay” disease.

Some even went as far as to claim the epidemic signaled gay people’s punishment by God for their sinful activities. Many were not open about their homosexuality. Therefore, the stigma and silence, as well as the lack of education about the disease, led it to spread in mass numbers all across the country.

None of this information was taught to me, even though it is an important part of American history. Hundreds of thousands died — it was a huge nationwide crisis. Thankfully, the situation has improved drastically since the 1980s and 1990s, and deaths from the disease are lower.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece by HIV and AIDS specialist Dr. Charlene Flash, it is evident that we still have a long way to go in both medicine and education. She points out many urban areas have made large progressions in decreasing the number of people infected by HIV and, in turn, drastically reduced the death rate.

While this is all good news, she also draws attention to the fact the south is far behind in fighting the disease, where more than half of the new infections and nearly half of the deaths related to HIV come from.

Furthermore, Flash shows the demographics of who is affected by HIV has switched to be mostly African Americans and Hispanics, with African Americans representing 44 percent of the people infected. In fact, HIV was the fifth leading cause of death for black women ages 35-44 in 2016.

Science has come so far in the field of HIV and AIDS, and people no longer need to suffer and die if they receive the proper treatment and medicine. It is unacceptable that a certain part and certain demographics of our country are not receiving life-saving medicine that should be readily available.

Part of this problem is the lack of education and stigma, since pre-exposure medicines such as PrEP, which drastically reduces the chances of getting HIV, can be subsidized for high-risk demographics. Yet only 1 percent of eligible African Americans and about 3 percent of Latinos are using PrEP, according to NAM.

If we spread educational resources to the south to educate people on how the disease spreads, how to prevent it, when to get tested and what to do once diagnosed, the contraction and death rates would decrease.

The stigma needs to be erased, as well. It is not a gay disease or a punishment, and it is not only transmitted sexually. Additionally, sex education and the conversation surrounding sex needs to be opened up and talked about more often.

This disease has plagued the world for too long. There are solutions to prevent much of its spreading. America just needs to keep pushing in every part of the country, for every demographic, to have it eradicated.

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