After working a little over a year now in the realm of public health and HIV prevention, I have learned a lot. I forget sometimes how much I have actually learned during my time doing this work until I encounter an education opportunity with another person. There is a lot of info out there that is accessible in regards to learning about HIV and STI’s, but people like to go off of what they hear, what they learned in the past, and are not always up to date. I myself was guilty of this. I knew a little bit about HIV, mostly from health classes and being involved in some advocacy groups where the conversations came up, but that was it. I had not realized the huge amount of progress that has been made over the years in regards to understanding HIV and trying to prevent new cases of it happening. It made me understand the need for education in this realm. The first step to ending stigma is talking, so let’s talk.
HIV is not a death sentence anymore, and people need to know that. I think people remember the HIV/AIDS epidemic and think nothing has changed since then. They do not know that folks living with HIV can lead full and healthy lives with proper care and treatment. I still remember when I first heard the phrase Undetectable equals untransmittable, or U=U, in regards to HIV. It blew my mind learning this. Here is a little segment from the CDC further explaining it:
“HIV medicine is called antiretroviral therapy, or ART. If taken as prescribed, HIV medicine reduces the amount of HIV in the body (viral load) to a very low level, which keeps the immune system working and prevents illness. This is called viral suppression—defined as having less than 200 copies of HIV per milliliter of blood. HIV medicine can even make the viral load so low that a test can’t detect it. This is called an undetectable viral load.”
When someone reaches an undetectable viral load they can no longer sexually transmit the virus to a negative partner. This means if someone living with HIV stays in care, not only will they stay healthy but they cannot transmit the virus to their partners. This is known as treatment as prevention, by getting everyone who is positive into care, we can work towards no new cases of HIV. We can also end the stigma facing those living with HIV with just a little bit of education.
Another topic I was shocked to learn about in my work was PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis. This once a day pill can prevent the contraction of HIV in someone who is negative. The CDC states “Studies have shown that PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by about 99% when taken daily.” If someone at risk of contracting HIV takes this medicine, their risk of contracting HIV drops.
I have set up many an educational booth in my time with Central Illinois Friends and have been at times met with disbelief when I present these facts. I cannot blame the people I have interacted with in these scenarios, as I was in a very similar state myself when I started learning more. That is why it is so important to have these conversations. We can end the stigma facing people living with HIV. We can also end the fear associated with HIV and testing, which means more people knowing their status. The Getting To Zero Illinois initiative, which Central Illinois Friends is a part of, aims to get to no new instances of HIV in the state by 2030. Between PrEP, getting those who are positive into care, and getting everyone tested, we have the tools to make this happen. Conversations and understanding are essential for progress, so let’s talk, let’s listen, let’s learn, and let’s end the stigma.
You can learn more about Getting To Zero Illinois here
You can also learn more about the concepts talked about in this article here: https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/risk/art/index.html
For education and information on free sexual health screenings (HIV/HepC/Sexually Transmitted Infections) in the greater Peoria area contact Central Illinois FRIENDS at (309) 671-2144 to set up an appointment.
HIV testing locations and other information can be also be obtained by calling the IDPH HIV/AIDS & STD hotline at 1-800-AID-AIDS (1-800-243-2437).
You can learn more about what was talked about above here:
If you live outside the greater Peoria area please visit: www.hivcareconnect.com to find a resource near you.