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George's LGBTea: For Those Unknowingly Living With HIV, We Must All Do Better

As we close out another year, ‘tis the season for people to make the age old New Year’s resolutions that nearly 90% of us won’t keep past the first week. With wealth, health, and happiness as often go-tos, HIV is currently hurting large demographics of Black and Brown communities; going untreated, as it is unknown to them. So much for health, right?

There are several reasons this continues to occur in our communities. And as we embark on a new year, the time has come for us to collectively end the stigma that continues to unknowingly hurt us as much as an undiagnosed HIV-positive status.

That stigma starts with the discrimination many of us are facing; those of us who live as HIV-positive people. Those who may be in need of testing can see how many of us are treated and decide that they would rather suffer by not knowing their status rather than live an existence with that type of discrimination. Folks must understand that people see the words on the apps and dating sites, in the comments and on Facebook posts. The terminology of being “clean” and “disease free” stigmatize those who are fearful that they may be HIV-positive. That type of fear is common within marginalized communities that historically haven’t been as accepting of non-hetero gender and sexual identities or the more sex-positive community formed by the younger generation.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times entitled About 15% of Americans with HIV don’t know they are infected, CDC report says dives even deeper into this issue.

According to the article:

“Among all 1.2 million Americans living with HIV in 2015, the CDC estimates that about 15% were unaware of their HIV-positive status. Those people are thought to be responsible for 40% of new transmissions of HIV, according to the study published Tuesday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

“For instance, half of African Americans had been infected for 3.3 years when they were diagnosed, while the median time for whites was 2.2 years. This gap was seen despite the fact that African Americans were more likely than whites to have been tested for HIV in the previous year. For Latinos, the median time to diagnosis was also 3.3 years; for Asian Americans, it was 4.2 years.”

The authors of the CDC report surmised that “the longer diagnosis delay among nonwhite racial and ethnic groups might reflect an observed trend: For whites, men who have sex with men are the predominant sources of HIV spread, but for other groups, sexual contact between men and women is responsible for a higher proportion of infections.”

Although these numbers may seem high, they have actually been on a decline, but still not where we should be to make the necessary dent needed to stop new infections of the virus. This decline is being attributed to campaigns by the CDC, and grassroots work of local HIV and AIDS service organizations across the country that have worked to increase testing numbers in marginalized communities. However, this issue isn’t just a problem in the U.S., as multiple reports have come out across the world stating that this problem is much bigger than one would have assumed.

According to CBCNEWS, one in five in Canada do not know that they are HIV-positive.

"The behaviors associated with HIV transmission are highly stigmatized, and that can result in individuals in certain populations not wanting to come forward and be tested," said Paul Sandstrom, director of the National HIV and Retrovirology Laboratory in Winnipeg. "We can't just be sitting back and waiting for a sample to arrive in the laboratory … We've had to come up with new strategies where we can engage the community and individuals within the community — essentially take the laboratory outside of the laboratory."

A report out of Trinidad and Tobago also states that they need to find 90% of their 11,000 people living with HIV who don’t know they are infected. Health Minister Terrance Deyalsingh is implementing the UNAIDS 90-90-90 plan in the country, a strategy being adopted by many major capitals.

“In relations to the 90-90-90 target for an HIV-free TT by 2020, TT is at 74-83-74, which means out of the 11,000 HIV population, 74 per cent know their status, which is 8,140. For TT to move up to 90 per cent, we need to find the other 1,760 people. That is the challenge we are faced with today,” Deyalsingh said.

We must begin to do the work of destigmatizing testing, and creating community around those who are HIV-positive as a means to opening up access to those who are fearful of finding out their status. This work will also take place in legislatures, which are needed to end archaic criminalization laws detrimental to the work being done to create equity among those who are HIV-positive and negative. Access to care for those who are positive is another factor, as we must begin working on getting treatment, and enabling folks to utilize treatment.

We have done great work over the past 30 years. But there are still too many people living with the virus unknowingly. It starts at home by both changing our language and our attitude towards the virus, and ensuring a safe and welcoming environment for those who need to know their status.