Monday, February 28, 2011

The Fear of HIV

"An estimated 17,000 people died of AIDS in America in 2009 alone, yet increasingly AIDS is seen as an ‘overseas’ or an ‘African’ problem, rather than something that directly affects American citizens." ~

The Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), considered a pandemic by the World Health Organization, is considered to be a death sentence for anyone who contracts it. HIV, we all know, leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

In the developing world, or more specific to my experiences, in Kenya - there has been and continues to be a mass educational campaign to reduce the rates of HIV infections throughout the country. Certainly, there are many myths and misconceptions regarding HIV (for example, that drinking camel urine every day for a year will cure HIV). As the educational campaign continues, certain communities are seeing a drop in the number of HIV infections.

Part of the educational campaign includes encouraging people to make sure that they know their HIV status before engaging in copulation. Testing is free of charge and generally available in many parts of the country - almost all clinics offer testing and counseling services, as do hospitals. That's not to say that the education does not just stop there. The education approach to HIV also includes youth groups doing activities and just about any activity from sports to environmental clean ups to just about anything can have an HIV component - include a pre- or post- event discussion and wham! HIV education is part of the activity.
Image: an education poster in Kenya; image taken from media gallery.

Now, let's contrast this to the U.S.

If my memory serves me right, the only time I remember having any kind of discussion or talk about HIV/AIDS in the U.S. was in my high school driver's ed and health class (interesting how those two subjects are combined into one semester, right?). The topic of HIV in that class was simply a subtopic when discussing sexually transmitted diseases/infections.
In fact, I wouldn't even really know where I'd go for an HIV test if I even had thought I'd possibly might have been exposed. I suppose I'd probably end up going to a hospital.

In terms of the actual HIV test, here in Kenya - many people have a fear of being seeing going to a testing location for fear of finding out that they have been given a death sentence: a positive test result.
Or at least that has been the perception: HIV+ means death. But in more recent times, more and more Kenyans are realizing that even contracting the HIV virus does not mean one's life is over. There are antiretroviral drugs (commonly called ARVs) which, combined with a healthy diet, can lead to many wonderful years of life having contracted the infection.

In the U.S., I've been told by a person who's gone through it, the HIV testing procedure is kept 100% secret. The only people in the room are the pathologist who is performing the test and the patient. Everyone else is asked to leave the room. Only the pathologist knows what's going to happen until the room is empty at which time the patient is told: 'you're going to be tested for HIV'.

This brings the question to mind: is there more fear of HIV in the U.S. than in Kenya? I mean certainly the rates of HIV in the U.S. are the following:
  • Estimated 1.1 Million people living with an HIV infection, out of an estimated population of 300+ million
  • by the end of 2007 there were 470,902 people living with an AIDS diagnoses in the United States
By comparison, in Kenya:
  • Estimated 1.5 Million people living with an HIV infection, out of an estimated population of 39 million
Statistically speaking, the chances of getting HIV are certainly less but that does not mean that HIV does not exist in the U.S.
Perhaps it is time for Americans to wake up to the reality that HIV affects Americans as well, not just members of developing countries.
The website, the source of the aforementioned statistics, states "Of all the industrialized countries in the world, America is home to the largest number of people living with HIV. Tens of thousands of people are newly infected with HIV in America every year"

So what can we do? First we need to wake up the reality: HIV is not an African problem. Once we have debunked that myth we can begin to come up with educational systems in place to increase awareness and one day eliminate the fear and stigma of living with HIV.

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