Thanks to an international army of scientists, activists, therapists, and friends, people with HIV are living long, full lives. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that some HIV-positive individuals may outlive their HIV-negative peers because they see their doctors more regularly and pay closer attention to their health. (I’ve lost the link to that study: if you have it, please share it.)
HIV treatment options are improving, too. The fistful of medications that patients used to take at precise intervals throughout the day have been reduced to one pill. There’s talk of longer-acting treatments that could be administered monthly or even annually. And every few weeks, we hear of breakthroughs that may lead to a cure for HIV: this week’s centers around a completely synthetic molecule that prevents HIV’s ability to replicate.
And so, people are getting antsy.
They see their HIV-positive friends living normal, healthy lives. They hear about medical advances that make it seem as if HIV will be cured tomorrow or, worst-case scenario, the day after. They think, “Is HIV really that big a deal? What’s all the fuss about?” And then, “Why the hell am I still using condoms?”
It’s understandable. Folks under 30 have never known a world without HIV/AIDS, never been able to express love or lust without the specter of disease looming quietly in the background. Even those of us who are older, those of us who can remember the first few years of the epidemic and the fear of the unknown — even we’re starting to squirm, to willingly forget what we once knew. Which perhaps explains why nearly 60% of gay men have ditched the rubbers and had unprotected sex within the past year.
Now, I’m not here to be a schoolmarm, to tell you, “Wear a condom, or else!” Frankly, I’m not sure that terror is the best strategy in today’s war on HIV/AIDS. And even if it were, I’d still rather people approach HIV from a position of knowledge, not fear.
So, with that in mind, here are a few suggestions on this World AIDS Day:
1. Get tested*. If you’ve never had an HIV test, I admit, the first time is a little scary. (Who am I kidding? It’s always scary.) But it’s part of being a responsible adult. You want to own a car? Get your oil changed. You want to buy a house? Buy insurance and track down a reliable contractor. You think you’re ready to have sex with another human being? Know your status. If you’re negative, keep it that way. And if you happen to test positive, begin treatment right away. Like they used to say on the Saturday morning cartoons, knowledge is power.
2. Get tested for everything. Rates of STD transmission are on the rise. For example, syphilis — a disease few people think about any more — is experiencing a comeback among sexually active Americans, particularly gay men. And while syphilis itself is treatable, a breakout can put you or your partner at significantly greater risk of contracting HIV.
3. Play safely. If you’re in a long-term, committed relationship and you’ve both tested negative, sure, you can toss the condoms. Plenty of monogamous HIV-positive couples have tossed them, too, though doctors have mixed feelings about that. But if you’re playing the field, if you’re more than passingly familiar with Grindr or Scruff, or if you have an open relationship, rubbers give you and your partners an extra layer of protection.
4. Take your meds. Today’s medications can make HIV a chronic, non-life-threatening condition, but the pills only work if you take them as directed. If you don’t like the side-effects of the meds you’re on, speak to your doctor about other options. And if you have addiction problems like booze or meth, get those under control, because they’ll interfere with your adherence. (Friends of people with HIV: you’re allowed to stage interventions, if necessary.)
5. Give back. HIV and AIDS aren’t what they used to be, but even with improvements to America’s healthcare system — improvements, for example, that prevent insurers from denying coverage because of HIV status — today’s life-saving treatment options aren’t available to everyone. Some people still can’t afford the drugs. Others suffer from mental problems that prevent them from sticking to a treatment regime. Thankfully, there are a host of organizations to help such people. Whether you’re HIV-positive or HIV-negative, give those organizations some of your time and money. You can donate to one of the national groups like amfAR, or you can keep your cash closer to home by giving to an outfit like the New Orleans AIDS Task Force (or whatever your local equivalent may be).
With a little luck and a lot of perseverance, we’ll soon see the end of AIDS. Until that day, though, we ought to be spend days like today — and every day — being vigilant, pushing for a cure, and supporting our friends and neighbors living with HIV and AIDS.
* If you like, you can use one of the new in-home HIV tests, but to me, that seems unwise. Should you test positive, you’ll have no one there for support and guidance, like you would in a clinic. Just my $0.02.