In November, Berry student’s inboxes were filled with emails from Health Services promoting free HIV testing at the Health Center. The free testing came just a couple of weeks before the 31st annual World AIDS day. Each year, Dec. 1 is an international day dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic as a result of the spread of HIV and honoring those who have died from the disease. When HIV first became a prominent issue in the U.S., its causing of AIDS was not known. The infection was thought to only affect certain groups, such as gay men and those who inject drugs. It was only in 1983 that it became known that HIV could infect anyone through contact with bodily fluids or blood transfusions and that mothers could transmit the infection to their babies.
HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that attacks the cells that help the body fight off infection. If untreated, HIV can develop into AIDS, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or stage 3 HIV. This is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition that impairs the body from fighting off disease and infection by damaging the immune system.
By 1985, clinical trials of antiretrovirals (ARVs) were being administered and the first HIV test was approved. It wasn’t until 1995, though, that a combination of three ARVs had made a breakthrough in the treatment of HIV. Early action prevention, testing and treatment has saved thousands of lives. However, even in 2019, HIV is still prominent across the country and the world. Transmission and diagnosis of the disease is disproportionate among racial and ethnic minorities, gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men. Other factors influencing the disproportionate diagnosis of the disease include health illiteracy, poverty and late diagnosis.
An estimated 1.1 million people are living with HIV today, according to HIV.gov. The Kaiser Family, a non-profit organization that focuses on national health issues, estimates that 15 percent, or one in seven, of those with HIV are unaware they are infected. The epidemic isn’t too far from the Berry bubble, either.
According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, Georgia has the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. In 2016 there were 2,593 new HIV diagnoses, and in 2017 the diagnoses increased to 2,698 new cases. The concentration of these cases hit close to home. Atlanta was a hotbed of transmissions, with numbers resembling those of Zimbabwe, according to Dr. Carlos del Rio, co-director of Emory University’s Center for AIDS Research. According to WSB TV2 Atlanta, Atlanta and Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Rockdale counties alone have some of the highest concentrated HIV rates per 100,000 people. However, the epidemic is not just prominent in urban areas of Georgia. According to the AIDSVU tracker, more than a dozen South Georgia counties are in the highest category, each with more than 380 HIV cases per 100,000 people.
The theme for this year’s World Aids Day was “Ending the HIV/AIDS Epidemic: Community by Community.” A huge contributor to the success of HIV prevention, testing and treatment has been the network of health workers and those affected by HIV. Even outside of those who might have been tested for HIV at the Health Center, the emails and promotions for the testing within the Berry community helped shed light on something which might feel far away from the Berry bubble.
Working to prevent and treat HIV requires combatting stigma that have accompanied the illness for decades. Normalizing and encouraging conversation and understanding of the disease is important in order to raise awareness of its realities. For a campus as sheltered as Berry can sometimes be, conversations about something like HIV are few and far between. It might seem like something that is a distant problem, but it’s obvious that it’s an epidemic that is affecting our neighbors, even family members. However, on campus there’s a larger conversation that is missing.
In many ways, safe-sex discourse and education is absent throughout campus. It was just a few semesters ago that students were reprimanded for passing out free condoms under the doors of residence halls. Now, condoms can only be distributed by the Health Center by appointment. Berry offering free HIV screening is just one small step in raising awareness of the disease’s prevalence. Berry can be community that advocates for destigmatizing HIV simply by creating an environment that does not stigmatize the conversation surrounding safe sex.