HIV – Still a Stigma?

You know, sometimes there are topics or discussions in our society which make me really, really sad. Like how we treat people with serious health conditions – e.g. aids. While still being incurable in 2018, the HI virus nowadays is at least controllable. We know a lot about how the virus is spread, how to protect ourselves and there are several medical vectors to attack its reproduction cycle and its effects on the body. The diagnosis aids no longer is a sudden death sentence. People who bear the virus are no devils bringing death to other people, infecting them just by being in the same room. And still, having aids means being socially excluded.

I first got to know about aids in the 90s, when I was a lot younger and the whole topic was really brand new. The newspapers and news shows were full of this new and totally lethal disease which counteracts medical treatment so quickly that there are no chances of healing whatsoever. Aids, just detected recently, had become a major threat to mankind. Something I had not noticed back then: due to its sexual transmission path, mostly gay men doing unsafe sex were infected. Which gave an already isolated minority another devilish look. Matthew Todd described the situation of gay men in the United Kingdom in his fantastic book “How to be Gay and Happy”, and my heart broke while reading about it. Still today, there are people believing that only gay men can be affected by the virus at all. Can you imagine?

One or two years ago, I visited the “Deutsches Museum” in Munich, a science museum primarily oriented towards physics and chemistry and engineering stuff. They had an exhibition about pharmacy and medical treatments, which was really fascinating to me. They showed a lot about the history of developing new treatments and pills, they offered insights into how medicine works inside the body. There also was some kind of column about people having aids – and how they live their lives with their diagnosis. Let’s just say – their statements shocked me. All of them, literally all of them told about social stigma. About being neglected, being isolated, the diagnosis having a huge impact on their daily lives. And I was like “What???” How can people do that to each other? Those people already suffer from a disease which will most likely stay in their bodies for the rest of their lives (given that there is no sudden breakthrough in medical research). They are doing well, you won’t even notice their condition when meeting them in the streets. They have to take care of themselves, but they manage – which might not be the easiest thing to do every day, getting up and having to maintain your health status. But instead of being helped, they are isolated as if they were the source of pestilence?

Please don’t get me wrong. I think ensuring your own health is very important, and there are a lot of things I would never do in order to protect myself from the sheer possibility of getting that disease. Anything else would be rather stupid, wouldn’t it? We all know these ads about safer sex, don’t we? However, that does not entitle me to treat people with aids like the walking dead. That would never entitle me to fire a person just because of their disease. And even a relationship should be possible, in case both partners are careful and willing to do some precautions. Actually, the more open we can be about the diseases we have, the easier we can counteract and adjust our lives.

That’s actually something which really annoys me – and worries me. People having aids still feel the pressure. I always feel sad when I’m talking or chatting with one and they tell me very carefully about their situation and seem to be almost surprised about my neutral reaction to it. It seems that not everybody reacts in a nice way to them when opening up. Which is unbearable for at least two good reasons: one, people already having to deal with a major health condition, they need our support, not disgusting comments, hatred or isolation. And second, we as a society need to open up for everybody to be able to be transparent about their potentially contagious conditions. That’s the only way we can all find a proper way how to deal with it. We won’t be able to defeat aids by forcing people to stay closeted about their status. That’s just not how it’ll work. You don’t defeat problems by ignoring or isolating them.