Let’s have a nonjudgmental discussion about living with HIV/AIDS.
Yes, you’ve heard about the disease. It’s been a serious subject for about three decades. And, yes, some people are tired hearing about HIV/AIDS and people who are infected.
Still, we need to have a public, frank talk. The disease is with us, continues to be a serious public health issue and remains, unfortunately, a taboo subject with a lot of people.
Christian Barco would want us to continue talking about HIV/AIDS, its causes, prevention and treatment. He also would want us to know that the disease, while serious, is not a life sentence for people who are infected. And he would want to us to know that a person who has the disease is not defined by it.
“It wasn’t who he was,” said Luis Ortega, Barco’s partner of nearly 15 years. “He would say, ‘Here I am.’”
Barco had HIV/AIDS and lived with it for the years that he and Ortega were together. He died on Sept. 8, two weeks after suffering from a brain aneurysm unrelated to his disease. Barco was 40, and he and Ortega were parents to a six-year-old son.
Ortega spoke on his partner’s behalf on Oct. 15 at El Casino Ballroom, on National Latino AIDS Awareness Day. Barco, who worked as a communicable disease investigator for the Pima County Health Department, was recognized posthumously for his vigorous community efforts, both professional and volunteer, on educating the public about the disease he carried.
Barco carried his disease with dignity, without shame. Among his family and close friends the disease was not a topic of conversation, said Ortega.
Public talk and education about HIV/AIDS has visibly lessened, in great part because more people are being treated for the disease and are living longer, and fewer people are dying directly from from the disease.
But HIV/AIDS persists, said Ortega, program director for the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, a Tucson nonprofit organization that provides services, programs and public education.
According to the Pima County Health Department, about 1 in 4 of all new HIV infections — 26 percent — is among youth ages 13 to 24 years. About 4 in 5 of these infections occur in males.
Of those youths who are infected with HIV, 60 percent do not know they are infected, are not getting tested and can unknowingly pass the virus on to others, the county says.
Young men are far more likely than young women to have HIV and are also less likely to get tested.
Some good news, however, is that the number of new HIV/AIDS cases has dropped, the county reported. The number decreased to fewer than 100 in 2012 from nearly 250 in 1987.
Despite the forward steps in public education, there remains a gulf of ignorance and misconceptions about the disease, Ortega said.
Young people who come to SAAF for testing lack basic information. Some individuals still believe that kissing leads to HIV, he said.
The two principal factors remain shared use of drug needles and unprotected sex, he said.
Taking truthful information into the schools remains difficult. Public schools have erected barriers to honest, open discussion among students on sex education, Ortega said.
Living with HIV/AIDS is not easy but doesn’t have to be a burden, said Joseph Loder, a 46-year-old volunteer with TIHAN, the Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network.
He learned in May 2012 that he had contracted the disease. Unsure of his family’s reaction, he told his family. They didn’t judge him, he said. They supported him.
Loder, who spoke at the Awareness Day dinner, shares his story publicly to erase persistent negative attitudes associated with HIV/AIDS.
“If you don’t talk about it, the stigma won’t go away,” said Loder.
In addition to maintaining public awareness and discussion about HIV/AIDS, its causes and treatments, the activists also ask that we demand from political leaders policies and funding in support of greater public education. Tell the Legislature in Phoenix and congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., that HIV/AIDS education and treatment requires bipartisan, nonjudgmental support.
Let the public discourse continue.