Replace fear, ignorance about HIV/AIDS

With Charlie Sheen’s recent announcement that he is living with HIV, the topic of HIV/AIDS has found its way back into public discourse. So much has changed since the last time the disease was a hot topic.

With proper medical treatment and ample support, a person who is diagnosed today can live a normal, healthy lifespan and is significantly less likely to pass the virus to others. There is also now a pill that can prevent a person from contracting HIV. It’s called PrEP.

Unfortunately, even with these advances, one thing remains: Stigma is one of our biggest challenges to ending HIV. Too many people living with HIV describe a fear of rejection that keeps them from getting the support they need and want from loved ones.

According to a new statewide survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in two Georgians say they have never talked about HIV/AIDS at home, and those who have say it infrequently comes up. The Kaiser survey reports 46 percent of Georgians personally know someone who is living with or has died of HIV/AIDS. Among black residents, 28 percent say they have a family member affected by the disease.

Whether it’s the one you are born into or the one you create, family matters. When people living with HIV can be open with loved ones about their status, it helps them seek and stay in care. Getting treatment is critical to good health outcomes. With the proper medication, an HIV-positive person is less likely to experience depression and other stresses that are often a result of the disease.

“We Are Family” is a new campaign from the Georgia Department of Public Health, the Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness and Greater Than AIDS. We here at the Fulton Department of Health, with the DeKalb County Board of Health, are thrilled to bring these important messages to Atlanta as part of our Atlanta Greater Than AIDS initiative. Through billboards and radio and television public announcements, we spotlight the important role played by loved ones in the health and well-being of people with HIV.

Anchored by short, documentary-style videos, the campaign features Georgians from all walks of life living with HIV. Through everyday actions, a mother and her grown son, a college student and his parent, a transgender woman and her sister, and others illustrate how love and support can empower us all in the face of HIV/AIDS.

These family members are there for one another, reminding loved ones to take their meds, checking to see how they are doing, listening without judgment and learning together about ways to live well with HIV. Most importantly, like everyone else, people living with HIV need to hear they are loved, unconditionally. It’s time to replace fear and ignorance with knowledge and empathy. HIV doesn’t spread by sharing a drinking glass, kissing or any other casual contact.

In life, we all face struggles. And as much as we like to think we can do it all by ourselves, it is the love of family and friends that helps us get through. HIV doesn’t just impact the person living with the disease, but also his or her loved ones.

So when you gather with the people you love this holiday season, give those around you the best gift of all — the gift of knowing just how much you support them, no matter what. Go ahead and offer your hugs! After all, isn’t that what family is all about?

To find out more about HIV, including supporting loved ones, and to watch the videos, go to:

Leisha McKinley-Beach is the HIV program administrator for the Fulton County Department of Health & Wellness.