With the U.S. Conference on AIDS just three days away, A Day with HIV in America, a project of Positively Aware, seeks to bring together a community of folks who live with HIV, to show their diversity and confront HIV stigmas.
Jeff Berry, editor in chief of Positively Aware, tells The Florida Independent, “We asked people to take a picture on one single day to express what it means for them to live with HIV,” to help break down barriers for people getting into care, addressing their fear of just talking about HIV, and getting tested.
“Stigma is a little more subtle, but it’s still there,” Berry says, “the stigmatizing effects of treatment are not as pronounced as they were with some of the earlier drugs, but there still is a fear out there for people to even think about getting treatment. I think that’s changed. Treatment has gotten more tolerable, but it still has side effects. Drugs are not benign and are lifelong.”
“I think there is still stigma surrounding HIV in the gay community, because people don’t want to be rejected. There is a long way to go with the social aspects of HIV stigma,” Berry adds.
“I think there is hope that there is going to be a number of tools to lower the rate of infection, and treatment as prevention is one of those [tools], getting people on treatment so their viral load is undetectable so they are less likely to transmit,” Berry tells the Independent.
“I’m sure you’ve heard that ‘we are not going to treat ourselves out of this epidemic.’ I think that is very true; it is not a matter of getting everybody access to treatment. The prevention messages and campaigns we have been using for whatever reason are not working how we would like them to work.”
Berry says that treating everyone is unsustainable. “You see it in Florida with the ADAP waiting list,” he says. “It’s a huge issue. I don’t think it is only going to be just Florida. I think you are going to see more of that unless the government comes up with a huge amount of money, and I don’t think that is going to happen.”
Berry considers that since the target population of the U.S. Conference on AIDS is men who have sex with men, “you’ll see a lot of workshops and presentations geared towards that population. We forget that the greatest number of people living with HIV are men who have sex with men, and the rates of infection among African-American men who have sex with men has skyrocketed.”
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on HIV infection rates from 2006 through 2009 shows an “alarming increase among young, black gay and bisexual men” that requires “urgent action.” That same month the 2011 National HIV Prevention Conference highlighted the need for more HIV prevention efforts for young black men who have sex with men.
Berry adds that going into the election year in 2012, this week’s Conference is “an opportunity for people to start finding ways to work together with one common voice and one common goal because it is really essential that in the next two years we talk with one common voice, and not turn into our current Congress where nothing is getting done because no one can agree on anything.”