HIV first entered the public consciousness in 1981. Four decades later, four persistent myths about HIV continue to hamper ending the epidemic.
First, there are some people who believe the HIV epidemic in the United States is already over. While HIV does not garner the type of attention it did in the early days, there are more than 1.2 million people living with HIV and roughly 35,000 new HIV diagnoses each year.
Second, there are some who believe that an HIV diagnosis is a death sentence. That might have been true for many in the early days of the epidemic, but today, with treatment, HIV is a manageable chronic illness.
Third, some people believe that only gay men are at risk for HIV. The earliest described cases were among gay men, and gay men living with HIV are disproportionately represented in the epidemic, but nearly 1 in 4 people living with HIV is straight.
Finally, some people think there is nothing that can be done to end the epidemic. The HIV epidemic has lasted far too long, and we’ve lost far too many friends and loved ones. But we have, right now, all the tools needed to end the HIV epidemic.
HIV road map
AIDS United, in partnership with the Act Now: End AIDS Coalition, and with the support of more than 250 HIV and community-based organizations, created a road map to ending the HIV epidemic. The road map lays out a path to getting 95% of people living with HIV a diagnosis, appropriate treatment, and eventually an undetectable viral load — the point at which there is so little virus in a person’s blood it doesn’t show up in lab tests.
In order to achieve these goals, we need to increase testing, prevention, and treatment.
HIV testing should be a part of routine health screenings. Medical providers should be testing everyone who is sexually active for HIV, regardless of a person’s gender or the gender of their sexual partners. Even if there is not a high likelihood of contracting the virus, this will help to identify early many infections that would have gone undetected. Routine testing also helps to reduce stigma.
We also need to expand evidence-based HIV prevention strategies. Again, medical providers should talk with their sexually active patients about prevention strategies, and consider preexposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a medicine that prevents HIV. There are now three options for PrEP, including a long-acting injectable version. We need to support and expand syringe services programs. We also need to spread the word far and wide that once someone reaches an undetectable viral load, they cannot sexually transmit the virus to anyone. This is what is meant by undetectable equals untransmittable, or U=U.
Treatment is not only an effective prevention strategy. A person who reaches an undetectable status can live a long and healthy life. There are several federal projects that are a vital part of treatment and care, such as the Ryan White HIV/AIDS and the Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS programs. About 40% of people living with HIV have health insurance through Medicaid, so preserving, strengthening and expanding Medicaid, both federally and in each state, is also a critical aspect of HIV treatment and care.
Despite these persistent myths, HIV is still with us, it is treatable and it does not discriminate. Together, by expanding testing, prevention, and treatment, we can end the HIV epidemic.