HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, and it largely affects the 13-24 age group. Like the name hints at, HIV directly weakens the immune system, specifically attacking CD4 cells (T cells) which help the body fight infections. When HIV is left untreated, it develops into the AIDS disease (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
HIV spreads when an infected person’s fluids come in contact with another person’s mucous membranes (rectum, penis, vagina, and mouth). These fluids include blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk.
HIV is most commonly spread through sexual intercourse as well as from mother to child. It can also be spread through oral sex and blood transfusions.
Last month, I interviewed undergraduate Mason Patriot Molly Doak to learn more about how the HIV Here & Now Project is fighting to bring awareness to HIV/AIDS.
What are three things you think people should know about HIV/AIDS that most people don’t know?
1) Prevention and education is the most effective way to stop the spread of HIV. You can only spread HIV, not AIDS.
2) 80% of all new HIV infections are caused by the risky behavior of just 20% of those already infected.
3) Women make up 50% of all people over the age of 15 living with HIV.
4) I realize this is more than three, but this needs to be said: HIV/AIDS does not stigmatize whom it infects; we stigmatize people and the disease. The only true way to prevent it is to educate. We have to start talking about it and keep talking about it.
How did you personally get involved in the HIV Here & Now project?
Molly: My godfather passed from a brain tumor brought on by AIDS. So through the sharing of stories and memories regarding his life, I was first introduced to the term AIDS. It was not until I was 21 that I heard the term again and came to fully understand it, thanks to a class I took here at Mason: Biology 301. The course’s professor, Dr. Malda Kocache, was really the person who inspired me to get involved with activism efforts.
Dr. Kocache has a great saying that, since the moment she spoke it, stuck with me: “America has gone silent on HIV and AIDS.” There is so much truth to that statement it is scary. As I began to reflect on my own life, I realized I went through high school and maybe heard the term once, yet I was about to be in one of the most at-risk age groups from contracting the virus. From there, I gave talks on HIV/AIDS and participated in the Walk to End HIV in DC this past October. Every time I would do something like this, or even just have a conversation with friends regarding HIV, I felt like I was doing what I was meant to do.
This fall semester I signed up for a class, English 356, that studied recent American poetry. One of the books in the course, Slow Lightning by Eduardo Corral, featured a poem entitled “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.” I decided to research the author and poem further, and stumbled upon the HIV Here & Now project.
We have to start talking about it and keep talking about it.
What other projects/organizations are you involved with concerning HIV/AIDS awareness?
Molly: I have recently begun working with WAVES and MEDx on the campus. Both groups seek to bring awareness to many topics; however, WAVES does several HIV/AIDS events throughout the year. Likewise, MEDx is dedicated to raising global health issues such as HIV/AIDS. Aside from that, I am searching for the next activism effort I can be a part of. That is the exciting thing about activism in general: it comes in many forms and there is always more that can be done.
You helped host the poetry reading event, Write for a Cure. How was your experience with this event? What do you feel could have been said that was not said at the event?
Molly: I really enjoyed helping to put on this event. However, I have to say I could never have done this alone. Thanks to the GMU campus organization WAVES and Angela Johnson with WAVES, as well as the student organization MEDx, this event was made possible. We had wonderful readers both with original pieces, and those published to the HIV H&N project. As Michael Broder, the creator of HIV H&N, said, “HIV/AIDS is not a sexy topic.” It is hard to get people interested in it, yet it can affect everyone.
More outreach needed to be done at the event. A lot of people said they were interested; however, people need an incentive when it comes to a “taboo” topic. Had there been more attendance, I think we could have taken more time to discuss some facts and information regarding HIV/AIDS. I believe we should always take advantage of educating people on this topic.
As Michael Broder, the creator of HIV H&N, said, “HIV/AIDS is not a sexy topic.”
What are the future goals for the HIV Here & Now project? How will you continue to stay involved, and how can the community stay involved?
Molly: I cannot speak for the creator of HIV H&N Michael Broder, but I believe the goals are to generate new talk about HIV/AIDS in a unique way. Michael has discussed getting more personal stories especially from a demographic that has remained quiet in this project or difficult to reach: transgender women of color. It is a very important demographic, so not only does HIV H&N break the silence on HIV/AIDS, but also it gives a voice to this demographic.
Likewise, this topic is not going away, and this project could be the very thing people have been looking for to share their story or a story of someone close to them that maybe is no longer around to share it themselves. In my case, I had been wanting to write some poetry about HIV/AIDS, and I had tried a number of times; however, nothing was really working, but when I found the HIV H&N project, suddenly the words came to me.
The projected print date for the HIV H&N anthology of published pieces is June 5, 2016. Until then, I will make it my goal to continue advertising the HIV Here & Now project. Others can get involved by writing and advertising. Be a voice. Tell friends, family, coworkers, classmates, etc. Post on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. Just keep talking about it. Just because HIV awareness week has ended does not mean the fight against the disease has ended.
Be a voice. Tell friends, family, coworkers, classmates, etc. Post on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. Just keep talking about it.
What are your concerns about HIV/AIDS awareness? How will these concerns be fulfilled? What progress still needs to be made concerning HIV, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases?
Molly: HIV/AIDS does not get the recognition it deserves. Awareness and activism efforts are usually ran by people who are passionate about the topic, but, simply, there are not enough people. HIV/AIDS needs to be a mainstream topic, just like many other diseases we do not have cures for. One of the biggest issues is HIV/AIDS is still considered a dirty and shameful disease. However, this could not be further from the truth.
I feel it is important to note HIV is spread through the exchange of body fluids (not saliva). Therefore, HIV is not solely spread through sexual intercourse; it can be spread through blood transfusions, needle exchange, and breast milk.
Given how most people get HIV, I believe our struggle begins with the shyness people have when it comes to simply educating about sex. Our society sexualizes so much, but when it comes to telling people the other side of it, there is so little conversation. Because there is a shame associated with sex, there is a shame associated with diseases and viruses that can be contracted through it. We need to start accepting this is a natural part of existence, and there is a safe way to approach it. We have to change and increase the conversation. Not educating and giving people the tools they need to prevent transmission of HIV, and STD/STIs in general, only increases one’s risk.
One of the biggest issues is HIV/AIDS is still considered a dirty and shameful disease. However, this could not be further from the truth.
Like a number of activists said in the 80s, “Silence = Death.” By choosing to be open with people and have these seemingly uncomfortable conversations, you protect yourself and others. And as a result, overtime, the conversation becomes a part of daily life and loses the discomfort. It begins on an individual level with personal behavior. Be open, be honest, be upfront. Talk = Life.
If you or someone you know may be experiencing symptoms of HIV or AIDS, locate your local test location and get tested as soon as possible. Symptoms include fever, chills, rash, night sweats, muscle aches, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, and mouth ulcers.
Symptoms can appear anywhere from two weeks to ten years after being infected, so the CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested at least once.
I would personally like to thank Molly Doak for letting me conduct this interview for The Rival GMU. I wish her the best of luck in her activism endeavors.
How are you spreading awareness for HIV/AIDS? Comment in the sidebar!
Featured Image: Jon Rawlinson (CC BY 2.0)