11/26/2015 02:36 EST | Updated 11/26/2016 05:12 EST

It's Time To Change Our Attitudes About HIV/AIDS

man hands forming a heart with his hands and a red ribbon for the fight against AIDS on a white background
nito100 via Getty Images
man hands forming a heart with his hands and a red ribbon for the fight against AIDS on a white background

As we approach World AIDS Day on December 1, the world will take time to reflect on the most misunderstood sexually transmitted infection. Though the virus itself hasn't changed in the last 30 years, the reality for people who contract the virus in the developed world is drastically different now than it was in decades past. In the 1980s, HIV infection was considered by most to be a death sentence and sex education drew heavily on fear around HIV infection as a way to promote safer sex.

However, in the last few decades the reality for those able to afford treatment has shifted drastically. Newer, more effective treatments are now available that can help people who are HIV positive live unencumbered by HIV for just as long as they would have otherwise.

Some 15.8 million people are now on HIV treatment and a five-year strategy to end the threat of a never-ending AIDS pandemic is starting to show results. These insights have led to the "fast-track" approach to ending the epidemic, which includes the 90-90-90 targets for 2020: 90 per cent of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status, 90 per cent of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy (ART) and 90 per cent of all people receiving ART will have viral suppression. Additionally, Truvada, a drug that can be taken by the non-infected as a guard against infection, is available for people who have an HIV positive partner or want to be extra careful.

We're now at the point where HIV infection is decidedly no longer a death sentence, and no longer a major inhibitor of quality of life.

Indeed, thanks to current treatments, HIV-positive people can live long and healthy lives with minimal risk of passing the virus to others. For those with access to care, some sex educators now talk about HIV infection as more of a nuisance to be managed than than a life-altering diagnosis. The reality is that HIV is now more like diabetes: without treatment it can be fatal, but with treatment it can be managed.

The world has changed, and we were interested if people's views of HIV infection had shifted along with the reality. So our community management folks at Kindara asked 500 men and 500 women about sexually transmitted infections (STI's), HIV/AIDS and sexual habits.

Here's what we learned:

  • People are still much more scared of contracting HIV/AIDS than any STI.
  • People still regard HIV/AIDS infection as a life-shortening diagnosis.
  • The ultimate level of fear that people have about contracting an STI must be low, because people aren't getting tested.

Check out more results here. Our takeaways from this survey is that the stigma of HIV/AIDS infection lives on, despite the new reality of effective treatment and regular lives for HIV positive people. Shining light on the facts to reduce the stigma is important because as the stigma fades, a more open and productive conversation emerges. Rather than the fear- and shame-based information about HIV/AIDS we received in the 80s, today's conversation should be more out in the open and free of stigma so that real facts reach more people.

The other takeaway is just how many people are out there having sex and not getting tested! This needs to change. If you are having sex with multiple partners, you owe it to yourself and to your partner to know your STI status and also to practice safer sex until you are both fully stoked to do otherwise. Even if HIV is no longer a death sentence, a sexually transmitted infection is something all of us would rather not have. Meeting the 90-90-90 target for 2020 is something all of us can be a part of through more regular STI testing.

On World AIDS Day, let's try to talk more openly and more often about HIV/AIDS, STI status and STI infection with our friends, loved ones and partners. Let's replace fear and shame with frank conversation as a way to combat the disease in 2015. And if you're sexually active and haven't been tested, get to your doctor and ask for an STI test!


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