By Perry N. Halkitis, PhD, MS, MPH
More often than not, World AIDS Day, celebrated on December 1st, comes and goes with little fanfare. This occasion, which commemorates our ongoing battle with the epidemic and honors the lives of those living with and lost to the disease, is significant in the circles I navigate. But for most Americans, World AIDS Day holds little or no meaning.
Two recent news stories could have raised consciousness and elevated the dialogue about HIV in our country. These stories should have served to remind more of us that HIV is a reality with we must continue to reckon, and, more importantly, that we, collectively, can bring an end to AIDS. But this raising of consciousness and banding together to fight the enemy is a lofty aspiration, which is less likely to occur given the hysteria surrounding these news events.
Charlie Sheen, John Wolf and the Tizzy of HIV
The media has had a field day covering two HIV-related stories in the last week. First, Charlie Sheen announced that he is living with the virus, after years of trying to prevent this fact from going public. Only a few days later, John Wolf, a well-known and apparently well-liked dentist working in the Chelsea section of New York City, who is also HIV-positive, was arrested. While coverage of Wolf’s story focused on drug and child pornography charges, the complaint filed against Wolf also alleged intent to infect his sexual partners by piecing holes in condoms.
At first glance, these two stories may appear seemingly unrelated. But coverage of the stories and reactions to them, point to the underlying panic and fear that continue to characterize the epidemic some three and half decades after the first cases were first diagnosed in New York City and Los Angeles. For those of us who lived through those very challenging times at the onset of the HIV crisis, when there was little hope for survival, the fear mongering associated with these stories is nothing new. Such testimonials have been depicted widely in film, and were articulated so powerfully by those whom I interviewed for my book The AIDS Generation. Quite simply, those living with HIV were viewed as harmful vectors of disease, worthy of rejection and blame.
Has much changed?
Sadly, and despite our many advances in fighting HIV, ignorance, panic, and hate continue to drive the disease. This began on The Today Show with Matt Lauer asking Charlie Sheen how he contracted the virus, as if that information should have any relevance to the story. But in a world of fear and ignorance it does. That question took me back to the early days of AIDS when individuals infected with the virus were categorized, in the minds of some, as ‘innocent victims’ (hemophiliacs and babies) and ‘deserving ones’ (gay men and injection drug users.). Lauer’s question reeked of this judgment. Then one day after the announcement, a slew of titillating stories emerged, accusing Sheen of paying sex workers at higher rates not to use condoms, and punctuated by the thoughts of the “always-enlightened” Jenny McCarthy who blasted Sheen for not disclosing his status, implying that somehow she might be at risk because she kissed Sheen while filming Spin City. (Sheen wasn’t HIV-positive at the time, which has caused McCarthy to autocorrect–somewhat). Upon hearing McCarthy’s accusatory comments, again I was transported to the 1980’s when all of the tabloids sensationalized the kiss between Rock Hudson and Linda Evans on the set of Dynasty. (My fellow X-ers and the Boomers will remember this; I ask the Millennials to search online or text an older friend for clarification).
Sheen’s brave announcement could have served as an opportunity to educate and raise awareness, which may have motivated some of 20,000 individuals living with HIV, who remained untested to actually get tested and treat their infections. Instead, some in our society have taken this opportunity to further instill fear and hysteria. The result is perpetuating the hate and ignorance that has surrounded this epidemic too long. Unfortunately, such reactions will not only further ostracize and burden those living with HIV and but provide another reason of those untested to continue living their lives with the virus unchecked.
Of course, the Wolf story adds fuel to the fire. While I do not condone Wolf’s abuse of methamphetamine (crystal meth) or possession of child pornography, I am somewhat more skeptical about the condom piercing. My own research on meth, clearly documents the delusions associated with this drug use. It also shows that meth users tend to have sex with other meth users. So do I believe that the informant who made this claim could have been hallucinating? I think this is highly likely, since the intentional infection of others are rare undertakings, often the behaviors of sociopaths, and there is no evidence that Wolf himself is a sociopath. Regardless, of the circumstance and outcome of this tragic situation, the damage is done, elevating the alarms, enabling the HIV-related-hate, and providing fodder to those supporting HIV criminalization.
What all this brings to mind for me is that as we approach World AIDS Day and honor all that has been accomplished, is that we must also pause and reflect on the ways we have made no progress at all. The venom that emanates from the ignorance of many individuals serves only to worsen the AIDS crisis in our country, where some 50,0000 new infections are detected annually.
Ignorance, panic, and hate fuel the HIV epidemic.
If we are to effectively bring an end to AIDS, medications alone will not solve the problem. A solution also involves people’s hearts and minds. With treatments, we can control the virus biologically. With open, thoughtful, accurate, non-judgmental discussion we can stop the tizzy of HIV, which does as much damage in perpetuating the epidemic as the virus itself.
*image credits: RadarOnline.com
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