March 10 is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
by Dara Yah’ya
Samantha* is a bright 20-year-old woman; she’s friendly and a hard worker.
She is also HIV positive.
Samantha learned about her diagnosis less than a year ago. With an undetectable viral load, it was obvious that Samantha was successful with her treatment. But her medical team suggested that she join a support group to help her deal with her depression.
She was reluctant to attend, afraid that someone would find out about her. A friend persuaded her instead to go on a retreat for young people living with HIV.
At the retreat, she was quiet at first. But she listened to the stories others shared. Many talked about being born with HIV (transmitted from their mothers immediate before or after birth). As one person shared what it was like growing up with HIV, Samantha asked, “So if I take my medications, can my baby still have it?”
Dying is no longer the biggest fear among people living with HIV in 2018, thanks to medical advances.
Dying is no longer the biggest fear among people living with HIV in 2018, thanks to medical advances. Living alone or being unable to start a family are the terrifying questions on their minds, especially among women and girls living with HIV.
The facts and the movement
One of the groundbreaking discoveries in the HIV world is Undetectable=Untransmittable (U=U).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that means “People who take ART [antiretroviral therapy] daily as prescribed and achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load have effectively no risk of sexually transmitting the virus to an HIV-negative partner” (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, September 2017).
“Samantha, yes you can have it all–a family and a full vibrant life! No, you will not be alone, and your child will not have to be born with HIV.”
Even if Samantha had difficulty achieving an undetectable viral load, effective HIV prevention options exists. For an expecting mother with a detectable viral load, the combination of delivering via a cesarean procedure, medication treatment for the newborn the first few weeks after birth and abstaining from breast feeding will prevent transmission to the child.
The biggest threat to Samantha’s health and the health of other women living with HIV is no longer the virus, but the stigma. Stigma—or the disgrace associated with HIV–is what discourages people from taking their medication, disclosing to their partners, and getting tested in the first place.
Stigma is like a stain. The negative perception of others, the internalized blame and discrimination prevents people from managing their HIV. It often leads to other risks factors such as drug use and depression.
Educating others about HIV facts and lifting the message of U=U help to reduce the shame and fear of sexual transmission. Education opens possibilities for policy makers, health care workers and people like you and me to help our friends and family live boldly with HIV.
Ending stigma saves lives and brings us closer to eradicating this epidemic.
*Name change to protect individual’s privacy.
Dara Yah’ya is the program manager for Youth Development and Wellness at Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSSNCA). Photo: LSSNCA Youth Haven Kids Camp at Mar-Lu-Ridge, Frederick, Md. Photographer: Ally Mendez, Youth Haven volunteer camp counselor