Dialogue needed to quell HIV fears

July 11, 2012
by Marni von Wilpert

Today is national HIV testing day, and there us no better time than today to find out your HIV status. Mississippi has the sixth highest rate of HIV in the nation in 2009, and there are nearly 10,000 people who are living with HIV in the state today, according to figures from the Mississippi State Department of Health. However, these 10,000 people are only the ones who are aware of their HIV-positive status; there are many who have contracted HIV, but have never been tested for it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that while 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV, one in five (0r 20 percent) of those people are unaware of their infection.

The idea that a person may have HIV and not know it is unsettling. The first step to preventing the further spread of HIV/AIDS is to know your status — even you may be unknowingly passing the virus onto others if you have not had a test.

Many people are afraid of testing for HIV because they fear how they will be treated by their friends, families, employers or landlords if they are diagnosed HIV-positive.

Unfortunately, an HIV diagnosis can often be met with terrible stigma and discrimination that is not present with other long-term, manageable illnesses such as cancer or diabetes. While there is no cure for HIV, thanks to modern medicine, HIV is no longer a death sentence, and people can live long, happy, productive lives with the right medication. While modern medicine has advanced dramatically to improve the lives of individuals living with HIV and AIDS, modern society has not, and people with HIV/AIDS continue to face debilitating stigma and discrimination at every turn, including housing discrimination by landlords and adverse actions by employers. If people are afraid to talk about HIV, they will certainly be afraid to test for it.

Only through open dialogue with our friends, family and communities can we begin to eliminate the fear surrounding the HIV epidemic.

The best way to prevent the further spread of HIV is to start talking about it and to eliminate the stigma and discrimination surrounding this medical condition by treating people living with HIV with basic respect and decency. Although HIV has been around for 30 years, many people still do not know that HIV can only be transmitted through blood, sexual intercourse and breast milk. HIV cannot be transmitted by sharing food or drinks or by hugging or shaking hands.

All of us can take action by treating people living with HIV with the basic respect we should give to all of our fellow human beings.

Free and confidential HIV tests are offered at any local health department office and at many local hospitals or clinics. Anyone facing unlawful discrimination based on their HIV status can contact me at the Mississippi Center for Justice for legal assistance.

Marni von Wilpert is a Skadden Fellow and staff attorney for the Mississippi Center for Justice.