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Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick Headshot

Away With AIDS! Advancing Our Perceptions Parallel to Current HIV Science

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AIDS is not a death sentence! Many people still think AIDS means death but it's not true. Thirty years ago it mattered if a person had AIDS because death was almost certain. Today it doesn't. Advancements in HIV treatment can eliminate the threat of dying from AIDS but the community psyche is trapped in the past. In 2013 no one has to develop or die of AIDS. Why aren't we getting this message?

We recently commemorated the 13th annual National Black AIDS Awareness Day (NBAAD). The goal of NBAAD is to raise awareness about HIV in the black community. My singular educational message for black America this NBAAD is that AIDS is not a death sentence! If I could, I would shout this message with a bullhorn from rooftops across the country.

AIDS can be prevented by early HIV testing and treatment. More importantly people diagnosed with AIDS can live a long life if they obtain treatment for HIV. Nowadays people with HIV and AIDS who are on treatment are not dying AIDS, they are dying from other ailments not related to AIDS. An added bonus is that being treated for HIV and AIDS reduces the likelihood of transmitting HIV to someone else.

There is reluctance by many in the black community to accept the truth about advancements in HIV treatment. This frustrates me. The lack of awareness and acceptance in our community hits me in the face in my clinic every week. Last week I saw two patients each illustrating our challenges with awareness and acceptance that AIDS is now a treatable condition.

The first is a man who was diagnosed with HIV in an emergency room five years ago. He presented to my clinic last week because he had developed a rash. When I asked why he decided not to follow up five years ago for treatment he said he was afraid he had AIDS and he knew he was going to die in a few years because there was no treatment for AIDS. He only came to see me to treat the rash because it was noticeable and people had begun to ask him about it. He had no idea HIV treatment was just as effective in people with AIDS.

The second person is an HIV-positive woman known to me because I started her on treatment one year ago. Despite numerous phone calls and notes of concerns sent to her she had not come for care since I wrote her initial prescription. When she arrived last week she nearly too weak to stand. When I asked why she hadn't returned in a year, she told me she didn't see the point in taking her medications since she had AIDS. Although I was confident we had covered this information, I again explained why AIDS is no longer a death sentence. She had become ill enough to be admitted to the hospital and this was completely avoidable. She, like so many patients I encounter, can't fathom the effectiveness of new HIV medications. The community continues to make a distinction between HIV and AIDS. But as a clinician, I don't. Actually, no one should. Because recent advancements in HIV treatment have rendered the terms AIDS so archaic it serves little purpose in 2013. It doesn't matter if a person has AIDS!

The term AIDS was coined at a time when we had little information about HIV and worse, when stigma and discrimination were ubiquitous and unavoidable. But now I am convinced it is merely a barrier to our efforts to end this epidemic. Use of the term AIDS should be minimized in our conversations and eventually eliminated because as in the preceding examples, the perceptions shrouding the term "AIDS" discourage testing and engagement in care and treatment. At times I feel like a broken record when educating the community about the availability of new, effective treatment for HIV and AIDS. No one likes a broken record. But if that's what it takes to make our society understand AIDS is no longer a death sentence, then I will continue to say it any way and anywhere I can. It doesn't matter if a person has AIDS! It's treatable and preventable! Get tested! Get treated! Live long!

Please will you help spread the word?

Tell me what you think it will it take to get people to accept and act on this message?