When was the first time you heard about HIV/AIDS? I first encountered AIDS as a disease through one of my childhood fixations: Beanie Babies. There was a sea green bear with an iridescent rainbow neck ribbon and embroidered with a child’s drawing. The bear was named Ariel, the artist of the drawing who passed away from AIDS at the age of 7 and proceeds went to her family’s pediatric AIDS foundation. Through Ariel the Bear, my knowledge of AIDS was a disease that killed children. The first time I encountered HIV as a topic was during my human growth and development unit in 5th grade where watched Ryan White’s story.
Like most Americans, my initial connotations with HIV was a progressive biological murder. Now, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa, there is a lesson I have gained in the past 10 months that stands out: Humans Live. Humans do live fully while they are impacted by HIV.
HIV stands for Human Immunodifiency Virus (HIV), because HIV is only found in humans. However the H, now means more to me. Human also reflects the permanent nature of the virus, once you contract HIV it is a part of your existence for the rest of your life. Humans develop humanity, which is how we try to make this messy experience called life less painful for each other. Finally, humans have a concrete understanding of hope, and while I have lost count of the number of people I know who are impacted by HIV in South Africa (the country with the highest number of HIV positive people in the world), they are all hopeful. How do I know? Because they are living and the public health field justifying uses People Living with HIV/AIDS as. The people of South Africa are too familiar with pain and trauma from a variety of sources, but they keep moving forward.
As an HIV Health Extension Volunteer, I see painful things on a regular basis that I cannot share publicly. In part I keep these experiences private out of respect for the individual’s privacy, but there are enough NGOs sharing the “death stories” of HIV. South Africa does not need another foreigner to share pitiful statistics that fuel ignorant tweets. HIV is South Africa’s 24/7 reality and if you dwell on the gloom, you will get burned out. In both community needs assessments, I asked caregivers if there is a point in the year where PLWHIV get sicker. Both times the caregivers’ answered with incredulous glares, because HIV never takes a holiday. PLWHIV in rural South Africa can do well for long periods of time with adequate access to Anti-Retroviral Drugs (ARVs), but still need support to manage their condition.
Today December 1st is World AIDS Day, arguably the most successful of the World Health Organization’s Official Health Days (Most probably do not know the dates of World Tuberculosis Day or World Hepatitis Day). World AIDS Day was created by two American Journalists in 1988 and purposely placed in between US Elections and December merriment. The event stuck and it has remained an annual event with UNAIDS initiated themes. South Africa has been plastered with red ribbons from the SABC anchors to the neighborhood kids wearing droopy and damp school ribbons as they fanned each other on hot afternoon in Amajuba.
HIV prevention is one of PC’s main health thrusts, and today every continent with PCVs present experienced World AIDS’ day Events. Given my situation, I had a low key World AIDS Day where I wore my beaded Ndebele pin crafted by my cohort mates’ host gogo, and briefly thanked the caregivers for their work. The rest of the day I planned for upcoming focus groups and the caregivers continued to fill out their client paper work. There will be district AIDS Day activities for the rest of the week, and we needed to get as much work possible completed. In America, the bright red ribbons will morph into commercial packaging for December merriment but in South Africa (and many other countries) the red ribbons remain painted on walls and printed on health brochures.
As World AIDS Day 2015 evaporates into the suffocating South African night, I want to ask you to contemplate how you first heard of HIV (feel free to share in the comments) and if it shapes your perspectives of PLWHIV. Also, please remember South Africa, other countries, and the global community of PLWHIV beyond December 1st. Biology and stigma do not care about Gregorian calendar dates. For most PLWHIV they will continue to live and struggle between World AIDS Days. As for me, I will keep my pin in a safe place, as there will be other occasions beyond December to show support for PLWHIV, those who have lost loved ones, and people who have dedicated their careers to improving the world for PLWHIV.
Because Everyday is World AIDS Day in South Africa.
…When hope returns to this epidemic the ignorance, fear and hatred will begin to subside. So, by showing hope through treatment, we will also address the stigma that surrounds this disease.
– Justice Edwin Cameron, South African Judge and Activist living with HIV
Additional Reading: I tried to keep this brief but for the interested this article articulates the progress made in addressing HIV and also the challenges many countries like South Africa still face.