By Mallika Sabharwal
Chair, Community and Public Health Action Committee
One of the essential services of public health is to mobilize community partnerships. What better way to do this than partnering with cross-sector agencies to deliver at a national level? Greater Than AIDS, an agency that promotes education and testing along with support and empowerment for individuals living with HIV/AIDS, is partnering with Walgreens, local health departments, and AIDS service organizations to provide free HIV testing leading up to National HIV Testing Day on June 27. Testing will take place June 23-25 in 150 cities across the country and is the largest coordinated effort for HIV testing. Check out this list of participating locations.
The AIDS epidemic began in the early 1980s and was unjustly referred to as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome (GRID). At that time, little was known regarding the infection and how it was spread. People falsely believed that HIV/AIDS was a death sentence, HIV was associated with socially unacceptable practices (drug use, sex work, infidelity), or that it occurred as a result of moral fault and personal irresponsibility. Unfortunately, some of these myths persist today.
During the late 1980s, the FDA approved the first test kits (ELISA and Western blot) to screen for HIV antibodies. They also began regulating the manufacturing and packaging of condoms to label them as AIDS prevention. HIV/AIDS became understood as a retrovirus. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the FDA approved different drugs to treat AIDS and HIV/AIDS-related infections, like Kaposi’s Sarcoma and pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. However the treatment regime and various different pills was burdensome.
Despite recent advances in the care and treatment of individuals living with HIV/AIDS, such as drug approvals, increased affordability of generic drugs, and improved diagnostic assays, some populations still face stigma and discrimination worldwide. Groups of people who are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, men who have sex with men, intravenous drug users, transgender persons, women, indigenous peoples, and sex workers are often marginalized. The World Health Organization cites the fear of stigma and discrimination as the main reason of why people are hesitant to get tested, disclose their HIV status, and take antiretroviral drugs.
The health care field may perpetuate this stigma, depending on a provider’s judgement regarding a person’s HIV status, behavior, sexual orientation, or gender identity. This social bias stems from the lack of knowledge of HIV. It also comes from negative attitudes towards marginalized populations in general. One way to overcome these biases is to propose new educational curriculum during the clinical years of medical school that promotes social justice and realizes implicit bias through self-reflection.
The American Medical Student Association supports efforts to integrate anti-stigma and discrimination techniques and programming into HIV-related health care services, both domestically and internationally. Stigma surrounding HIV testing is associated with poor access to care which contributes to the expansion of the epidemic. If people are tested late they are diagnosed late, to the point where HIV has developed into AIDS, which makes treatment less effective, increases the likelihood of transmitting HIV to others and can cause an early death.
Let’s promote HIV testing, not because of certain risk factors but as routine health care. Getting tested is a crucial first step to learn your status and stay healthy.