What people are still getting wrong about HIV/AIDS

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When it emerged that Charlie Sheen was HIV-positive, the media erupted — and much of it showed a disturbing lack of understanding of HIV/AIDS, writes S. A. Starcevic.

I REMEMBER the first time I ever heard about HIV.

Funnily enough, it was through the rock musical, Rent, that I learnt about the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, which latched onto Los Angeles, then New York and went on to carve a swathe through the United States. I remember the saddest scene of the movie – a stark hospital room, Jesse L. Martin cradling a bed-ridden Angel, cheeks sallow, reduced to little more than a husk. Her on-screen death was like a slug to the stomach, not least of which because I realised the same thing had happened – and was happening, like, right now – in real life.

Flash forward to 2015, when it emerged that Charlie Sheen was HIV-positive, the media erupted like Mt Vesuvius. Here was a mega-celeb with a reputation for skating along the wrong side of the tracks. It was little wonder, some people murmured, that his skeezy past had finally caught up with him.

There’s something wrong with this pattern of thinking, though. Not just because it’s outdated, but because it shows a disturbing lack of understanding of HIV/AIDS, even decades after the disease first caught the attention of the paps.

For starters, despite what some tawdry media outlets will tell you, no, Charlie Sheen does not have AIDS. He has HIV. HIV is not AIDS. But HIV can lead to AIDS if it’s not treated in time. More on that later.

Yes, AIDS still kills. A lot. Since 2000, over 25 million people have died as a result of the disease. 25 million. That’s more than the entire population of Australia. Not helping matters is that 70 per cent of HIV carriers are dotted across sub-Saharan Africa, with next to no access to hospitals, doctors, or proper treatment plans. It’s also worth noting that even when the disease doesn’t kill, it can spawn crippling symptoms. Lancing headaches. Scorching fevers. Skin-bubbling sores. It goes on.

That said, HIV/AIDS is treatable. Most of the time. Here’s the CliffsNotes version: every HIV-positive person carries around something called a viral load, which is the number of HIV viruses whizzing around in their blood and gnawing away at their cells. With the right cocktail of medication, sufferers can reduce their viral load, delaying the onset of symptoms and making transmission of the disease virtually impossible. As a result, HIV carriers can lead long, fulfilling lives just the same as someone with anaemia or Lupus.

That said, HIV is still spreading. Around 2 million people are infected with the disease each year. Over 1000 of those are Australians. What’s unsettling is that people still attribute the contraction of the virus to being somehow unclean or adulterous. In fact, HIV can pass from one person to the next in a multitude of ways, including through sexual contact, but also through swapping fluids (not saliva) or sharing syringes. All stigmatising HIV does is alienate those in need of treatment but who are too afraid to seek it out.

And who could blame them? Public hysteria has marred people’s attitudes towards HIV since the 1980’s. 

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Headlines like 'AIDS KILLS BABIES' and 'GAY PLAGUE AGONY' ratcheted up fears of the virus, with uber-conservative pollies Ian Sinclair and Joh Bjelke-Peterson rattling the bee’s nest of public opinion. Bible-thumpers christened it a divine plague targeting members of the LGBT community, and even today, these same generational homophobic sentiments rear their heads in our blood-banks. (Gay men still, mystifyingly, aren’t allowed to have sex for 12 months leading up to getting the jab, despite freshly unearthed evidence from the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations pointing towards the futility of such a ban.)

Maybe Mr Sheen would’ve been upfront about his struggles from the get-go had he not been worried the admission would somehow tarnish his career. Who knows? But just like in Rent, there’s “no day but today.”

Let’s try to get it right for next time.

You can follow S. A. Starcevic on Twitter @bookshelfofdoom.

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