AIDS – Feared By All, Understood By Few

06 May 2012 | Health | By Ridhima Kalra
profiles.nlm.nih.gov

A man, infected with HIV, committed suicide in Ambala yesterday. He was on medication and had lost his wife to the disease. Countless others, in India, live a miserable life – replete with stigmas and taboos – while many ignoramuses continue to be unaware of the difference between AIDS and HIV-infection. Are you one of those know-nothings?

0Comments Read MoreAIDS, HIV, homosexuality, Social Welfare

It’s deadly and spreading at a rapid pace. We are afraid that it might happen to us and we undermine the ones who’ve already been its prey. We want nothing to do with it or with the person who has it, even if that means descending to the lower most levels of correctitude and humanistic behaviour. We may not fully understand what it is, but we hate it with complete say-so. Yes, we are talking about the most feared four-lettered acronym – AIDS.

Now we all know that AIDS is this fatal disease; a disease no one wants to be associated with, directly or indirectly. According to experts, AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a disease of the human immune system caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).The illness suppresses the immune system, making people with AIDS much more likely to get infections; therefore the most generic of diseases can kill them. However, just being infected with HIV doesn’t make one an AIDS patient. Being HIV positive simply means that a person has been infected with a virus known as HIV. Although, with time, people infected with HIV almost inevitably get AIDS, but people receiving timely treatment for their HIV infection (with the drugs known as anti-retroviral medicines) can delay the onset of AIDS for a good 10 years or more, and thus have a possibility of leading a healthier life. Since HIV interferes with normal immunological functions of a healthy body, AIDS is not a single disease but a spectrum of diseases caused by having reduced immunity. We rest our case, thus, and conclude that HIV is just the virus that causes AIDS; it is not another word for AIDS.

Having cleared this, let’s move on to how does one get infected with AIDS? A lot of people have this misconception that AIDS is to be feared only by gay people, drug abusers or the promiscuous crowd (refer to our earlier article(s) on homosexuality for details). That is not entirely true – unprotected sex with someone you believe is saintly (non-promiscuous), or a harmless tattoo at an uppity art-studio using unclean needles can also give you an HIV infection. And no, it’s not scientific to believe that non-penetrative sex is always safe. A person with bleeding gums, or an abrasion in mouth (which can happen to anyone, anytime), can also get HIV through oral sex. The point we are trying to make is that anyone could be infected with it if not careful. And in order to save one self from this fatality one must be aware of the facts: HIV virus is passed on in the sexual fluids or the blood of an infected person. Therefore, a mother can pass it to her child; however, since mother’s and baby’s blood doesn’t get mixed until the umbilical cord is cut, doctors can use a variety of safe-cards to prevent infection from the mother to the child.  At the same time, it is common knowledge that HIV does not pass through hugging, kissing or being in the same room as an HIV positive person. It cannot be transmitted by a sneeze, dirty glasses, door handles or shaking hands. HIV cannot survive in air, so such apprehensions are easily discounted. Yet, people like that man from Ambala continue to face social discrimination. Remember that disco scene from ‘Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na’, where a witty Imran Khan saves Rimi Sen from getting eve-teased by the Khan brothers, just by dropping in the word that she had infected him with HIV? The way Sohail and Arbaaz ran cold sweat is a truth of our society, explored perfectly by the filmmaker.

People infected with HIV are treated as untouchables, and that’s not just by the uneducated lot; even the most hoity-toity crowd avoids general contact with infected people and teaches their children also to do so. People who are tested positive are perceived as immoral and bad. People living with HIV are a target of violent attacks, they are disowned by their own families and the heights of it all, in some cases they are even denied the last rites after they die. Now, is that the mark of a so-called moral society? Due to such reactions from the society, a lot of people keep their disease a secret. They would rather die in silence than let the world know that they have been infected, and then be subjected to inhumane behaviour by their own. More than anything else, this disease has become every person’s fear and it’s the fear that causes all the problems. This must change.

Now, how does one know if someone’s infected with HIV? Are there any signs or symptoms one should look out for? Unfortunately, there is no way to tell just by looking at the person if they are infected or not. There are some people who may be infected but show absolutely no symptoms and look perfectly healthy, until the virulence crosses a certain threshold. The only way to be absolutely sure is by having an HIV test. Today’s youth are liberated in every aspect and lead active sexual lives. It’s important for them to have regular check-ups to know if they have caught any sexually transmitted diseases. One must not shy away from asking their partner to be tested before indulging in intercourse. Trust us, that’s more important than having horoscopes matched! It might sound very clichéd but seriously it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Maharashtra was one of the earliest states in India where the disease manifested itself, registering its first case in Mumbai, in 1986. Since 2007, 10,371 persons have succumbed to the disease in Maharashtra, second only to Andhra Pradesh, where 12,879 people have died due to AIDS. Though, Maharashtra also has 30 anti-retroviral treatment centres – the largest in the country.

It’s a disease that’s rapidly clawing its way into the very core of our nation and the only way to prevent it is education and awareness. Although educating people about the prevention of HIV/AIDS can be a challenge in India due to language barriers and hundreds of different dialects spoken within its vast population. But hope is a great support. As part of its focus on prevention, the government has supported the installation of over 11,000 condom vending machines in colleges, road-side restaurants, stations, gas stations and hospitals. The main aim is to break the taboo that currently surrounds the use of condoms in India. People are still embarrassed to go and purchase a condom. And mind you, it’s not just the rural people. The highly educated and liberated modern society crowd still shies away from purchasing a condom. There are multiple campaigns, public events, celebrity endorsements educating people about the practice of safe sex. The very famous singer, Sir Elton John, has raised more than $220 million to fight AIDS in 55 countries through an organization he created in early 1990s.

We are the people of this era. We consider ourselves to be smart and educated. Why not use this smartness where it’s really required? Don’t let yourself be sucked into this foolishness of abhorring the people with HIV/AIDS. Rise above it and see them firstly as human beings before anything else. For most of them, death is inevitable but with such attitude we kill them slowly each day – multiple times, before they actually leave this world. This act of injustice and animalistic behaviour should no longer continue; for you never know, one day you or somebody you dote can be a victim.

“It’s bad enough people are dying of AIDS; but no one should die of ignorance.”

(Quoted by Elizabeth Taylor, who helped spread awareness and fight against AIDS before her death. Also, she left no stone unturned to make sure that the legacy continued after she passed away – the bulk of her $600 million estate is expected to go to the charities she established to fight AIDS.)

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