2 min

Can’t we treat HIV like any other disease?

I’d like World AIDS Day 2012 to be about more than a discussion of criminalization or the complexities of dating with a communicable disease.
These are pressing issues for those of us grappling with HIV, but these examples tend to overshadow the far-reaching implications of a positive test result.

Instead, consider how it affects our relationships with family. What it’s like to have a two-year-old niece you’ve never met because your sister is afraid you’ll give her child AIDS. How it limits our job opportunities. How it can be more difficult to find a family doctor or a dentist. The humiliation of being loudly denied a tattoo in front of a shop full of strangers because of your status. The frustration of applying for the Ontario Trillium Drug Program by snail mail and scrambling to collect supporting documents when your medical coverage at your job runs out or fails to cover the full cost of your $1768.21 monthly bill for life-saving medication.
Think about how angry you’d feel if you had a secondary sexually transmitted infection and went for treatment at Public Health only to be given a hard time about your sexual practices and shamed for remaining sexually active after your diagnoses. This year, I want the conversation to be about all these kinds of individual slights, grievances and stresses that appear to be superfluous, superficial wounds, but viewed wholly, can show how some HIV-positive people slowly bleed to death.
On Dec 1, testing, HIV in a global context, and the hope for a vaccine will most likely dominate discussions, but not the pervasiveness of stigma in the lives of poz folks. And as we struggle with all the ways stigma affects our daily lives, how much credit will we be given on World AIDS Day recognizing our resiliency? And how accountable will HIV-negative men and women be for perpetuating stigma?
If you’ve ever used the word “clean,” for instance, to describe an HIV-negative person, congratulations: you’ve succeeded in making my life a little more difficult. You’ve quite frankly made having HIV that much more exhausting and depressing.
Faced with the conundrum of the chicken or the egg, doctors don’t know yet if HIV causes depression or having HIV makes you depressed. What we do know is that prevalence rates for depression in people living with HIV is estimated to be as high as 45 to 60 percent, with HIV-positive women twice as likely as men to be depressed.
Depression can mean oversleeping, overeating, problems concentrating, low sex drive, fatigue, loss of appetite, problems adhering to medication, feelings of hopelessness or guilt. For some, like my friend Christopher, it looked like him loitering on a bridge at 3am contemplating jumping.
At a point in time – now – when HIV is a treatable chronic condition, preferable to diabetes, how is it that the stigma surrounding this disease has remained so bad it’s driven some of us to take our own lives? The answer, of course, lies in how pervasive stigma is.
I don’t want our daily struggles as poz folks to be presented here simply as deterrents for contracting HIV. That’s not the point. Every situation I’ve mentioned could be abolished with easier access to treatment and education. That’s the point. Dealing with HIV could become just about focusing our energies on stomaching doctor appointments, blood tests, the side effects of medication, and opportunistic infections. You know, like any other disease.