I will never forget the first time I informed a patient they tested positive for HIV. It was 10 years ago on a mobile unit, and they were a teenager who had just gotten out of school. I explained the preliminary result, described the virus for a second time, and asked him to let us draw blood for a confirmatory test. He was calm, listened intently and agreed to the second draw. I asked him if he had any questions. He asked if it was curable.
It was heartbreaking to tell him no.
While receiving an HIV diagnosis is life changing, today it doesn’t have to be life-ending. Many people living with HIV experience healthy, happy lives. Today, with proper medication, the viral load in someone’s body can be reduced to the point where they are unable to even pass the virus to another person. But while treatment is saving lives and even stopping the spread of the virus, prevention is still as important as ever.
Condoms are great at stopping the spread of HIV but now there is also a daily pill for HIV prevention called PrEP which stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis. This pill is widely accessible with insurance and assistance programs. Just like a birth control pill is taken daily to prevent pregnancy, PrEP is also taken daily to prevent someone from getting HIV. For a person who has had a risk of possible HIV exposure (such as a condom break) they can use PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), a 28-day pill taken within 72 hours after possible exposure. PEP, is more comparable to PlanB or the morning after pill. Both PrEP and PEP are available at Planned Parenthood of Illinois where staff can also explain options for financial assistance.
Getting tested is an essential part of stopping the spread of HIV. Unfortunately, HIV and AIDS is still highly stigmatized causing people to avoid the topic and refrain from testing or asking their doctor about PrEP.
Fear, lack of information, and lack of access to testing, prevents many people from knowing their status. Everyone should seek out testing for themselves. Do not rely on a sexual partner to be tested for you, do not assume you are getting tested at a doctor’s visit, and do not wait for symptoms or “risk.” Planned Parenthood offers confidential and convenient STI testing on a sliding scale for those without insurance coverage. You can make an appointment today through www.plannedparenthood.org or call 877-200-PPIL.
December 1, 2019 is World Aids Day. Most people in the world living with HIV do not know they have the virus. This December, make a pledge to get tested and encourage others to also. Talk to a friend about HIV and check out the Getting to Zero campaign. Tell people about U=U (Undetectable equals Untransmittable), a campaign to spread education about the importance of medication in stopping the spread of HIV.
People living with HIV can thrive with medical intervention. They can be healthy, date, have children, play sports, and live well into old age. People with HIV are our friends, family, co-workers, students, teachers, and neighbors. They are patients, doctors, athletes, and everyday people who “Netflix and chill”.
When the epidemic first began, much of the funding was for hospice care. Now, that same funding is going towards increasing quality of life, moving through the decades into elderly care. This is amazing progress.
Together we can stop HIV but only if we are unafraid to move past the stigma. HIV is just a virus. The stigma is the disease.
Get tested today – visit www.plannedparenthood.org or call 877-200-PPIL.
Deonn Strathman is the Director of Community Engagement and Adolescent Health Initiatives Planned Parenthood of Illinois.