From Fear of Discrimination to Social Support: the Long Road of AIDS

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This article is part of the 37th issue of LEAP — Voices of Youth e-letter. Subscribe now.

The red ribbon is a symbol to elevate people’s understanding of AIDS and break existing stigmas. (Photo credit: Pexels)

From the symbolic red ribbon to the red iPhone to the red Beats by Dre Solo 3 wireless Bluetooth headphones, what is the meaning behind these bright red products?

In 1991, New York art group Visual AIDS Artists Caucus, inspired by the yellow ribbon symbolizing a safe return, decided to use the color red to represent blood, anger, and passion to create the symbol of the red ribbon. They hoped that the red ribbon would attract people’s attention to the AIDS epidemic and could be used to promote AIDS prevention. The aforementioned red products follow the same concept in its support of AIDS research and treatments.

In the past, people assumed that AIDS was incurable and that individuals suffering from AIDS were mostly from minority groups, resulting in interwoven misconceptions and fear toward the disease. People were often terrified at the mere mention of AIDS. Now, as medical and testing technologies improve, AIDS is no longer fatal. However, the fear and stigma against AIDS and those suffering from the disease remains.

Unveiling AIDS

In the past, people often heard that patients with AIDS died from minor infections due to their compromised immune systems. However, along with medical advancements, most patients maintain their health and everyday lives through a regimen of medications. (Photo credit: Pexels)

The full name of the feared AIDS is Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, and what causes AIDS is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. Scientists have traced the origins of the disease and discovered that humans may have contracted this disease through contact with other primates.

The earliest case of AIDS was traced back to a patient in 1920 in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, and the first case of AIDS confirmed by the Central Disease Center of the United States was in 1981.

When a person is infected by HIV and confirmed to have AIDS, the virus destroys the person’s immune system, weakening the immune system so that it struggles to resist external contaminants such as other viruses, bacteria, and fungi, and can lead to opportunistic infections. An opportunistic infection is when bacteria and viruses which typically are not life-threatening to individuals with a healthy immune system, overwhelm a patient with a weakened immune system as a result of AIDS and cause their death.

There are over 75 million people worldwide with AIDS. Taiwan had its first imported case of AIDS in 1984 and its first local case approximately 2 years later. As of today, Taiwan has 44,121 patients with AIDS, and among them, 20,836 are sick. According to the statistics of Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, as of the end of 2021, an accumulation of approximately 7,500 people have died of AIDS in Taiwan. Compared to other countries, Taiwan is a country with low AIDS prevalence.

In recent years, services such as diverse channels for AIDS screening, anonymous screening, and Sexual Happiness Buses have made the screening of AIDS more prevalent and convenient while also protecting the privacy of individuals. Also, more than 360 locations around Taiwan provide free anonymous AIDS screening. Among them are 70 medical institutions and 13 of them provide rapid screening and notification for confirmed patients.

Regarding AIDS treatment, in 1997, Taiwan started using the highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), which is the most widely employed treatment method for AIDS. This treatment method incorporates three or more HIV medicines that can effectively control the amount of plasma HIV RNA and PVL in patients with AIDS and increase the number of their CD4 lymphocytes, which reduces the onset of people who are infected and reduces the occurrence of opportunistic infections.

Stigmatization and destigmatization of patients with AIDS

The stigma against AIDS typically comes from a fear and lack of understanding of the disease. Many people now proactively promote the concept of “Undetectable equals untransmittable, U=U” about AIDS, hoping to destigmatize those who have AIDS. (Photo credit: Unsplash)

When there is a lack of understanding about AIDS, people are likely to become afraid, and this fear can result in bias and stigma. AIDS is transmitted via four methods: blood transfusion, unsafe sex, contaminated needle use, and vertical infection from mother to child. Simple interpersonal interactions, such as touching, embracing, or sharing a meal, do not cause infection. In Taiwan, most people with AIDS receive treatments and have their viral load under control. They have a low amount of virus in their bloodstream. However, when the average person learns that an individual is AIDS positive, they often feel anxious, believing that the individual has messy sexual relations, or may be using drugs.

To date, AIDS is still strongly connected to those with same-sex sexual orientations. When the stigmas of sex between two men and AIDS are coupled, it can result in an increased fear of both. To destigmatize AIDS, encourage people with a high risk of AIDS to receive periodic screening, and promote the concept of using treatments as preventive measures, the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA) has designated June 27 as National HIV Testing Day. The association hopes to see a future with zero infection, zero deaths, and zero discrimination. In 1988, the United Nations declared December 1 as the World AIDS Day, hoping that people will pay attention to topics and treatments related to AIDS, and that stigmas associated with it could be eliminated.

In Taiwan, in addition to the response to the National HIV Testing Day and World AIDS Day, the CDC along with organizations, such as the Association for the Promotion of the Rights and Interests of People with AIDS, Taiwan Lourdes Association, and HIVSTORY, have long been dedicated to creating a friendly and equal environment for individuals with AIDS. Regarding the treatment fee for AIDS, the government also provides partial subsidies to increase the rate of seeking medical support.

In recent years, under the promotion and effort of various groups, the stigmatization of AIDS has been decreasing. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) of the United States proposed the concept of U=U (i.e., undetectable equals untransmittable). They stated that when patients with AIDS who have received HAART until no virus can be detected by existing testing methods in their blood for 6 months, they are no longer contagious. The concept of U=U represents although the patients may still have some HIV in their body, because the virus cannot be detected from blood tests, patients cannot pass it on to other people.

In 2013, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) established the goal of the world reaching 90–90–90 by 2020. Specifically, they hoped that by 2020, 90% of patients with AIDS would know that they were infected, 90% of them were under medical treatment, and the virus could no longer be detected in 90% of them. According to the Centers for Disease Control of Taiwan, in 2021, Taiwan achieved 90–93–95. It planned to launch the 2030 AIDS Elimination Plan Phase I (2022–2026) in 2022, with hopes that by 2030, Taiwan could achieve 95–95–95, a new goal set by the UNAIDS.

Today, AIDS is no longer incurable. Stigma and discrimination will only deter people with HIV from seeking medical attention or help, resulting in more tragedy. Now, in addition to promoting the importance of AIDS prevention, education and communication to reach the public must be implemented to create a friendly and equal environment for patients with AIDS and the society as a whole.

Also in This Issue: Rejected Despite Blood Supply Shortage: Stigmas Against Gay Men Donating Blood

Blood collection is a field where the fear of AIDS is most irrational and thus most contagious. It’s high time we make some changes.

Author : Vivian May

Freelance journalist exploring gender and public issues.

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LEAP − Voices of Youth

LEAP − Voices of Youth

LEAP: Voices of Youth is a quality platform for English readers to learn about gender issues in Taiwan