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HIV, Stigma, And The Media

Last November, the National Football League devoted the entire month to breast cancer awareness. Players like Reggie Bush wore pink gloves, armbands, even shoes, to promote efforts to fight the disease.

There were some heartwarming moments. Players brought their mothers, grandmothers, and other women who’d battled breast cancer to the games, all of them wearing attractive pink game-day jerseys. Announcers told their own stories of “courageous” battles against the disease waged by friends and family members.

It’s powerful and inspiring, these overpaid hulks of manhood showing they’re secure enough in their masculinity to don feminine-ish garb to support their sisters and mothers.

But try to imagine the NFL — or any sports league — launching a similar campaign to fight HIV and AIDS. Which player would trot out a brother, sister, or father who’s HIV positive? Which television announcer would proudly point to the afflicted and speak of their “inspirational” battle with HIV?

In an NPR interview last week, Theresa Skipper talked about why she concealed her HIV diagnosis for 19 years:

If tell you I had cancer, you’re sympathetic. If I tell you I had diabetes, you’re sympathetic. HIV, you look at me funny and you want to know how I got it. Why is that? It doesn’t even matter at this point. And that’s what I had to get beyond. To get beyond: Yes, I have HIV; this is how I caught it. Now what? You know, now what do we do?

Cancer and diabetes are interesting examples because in many cases both diseases are preventable, just like HIV. If you don’t smoke, you dramatically decrease your chances of getting lung cancer. If you eat healthy foods and get plenty of exercise, you will probably avoid type 2 diabetes. The whole point of a breast cancer “awareness” campaign is to convince women to get screened regularly. Yet few people would eye a woman with breast cancer suspiciously and ask how often she had gotten screened.

Arguably HIV/AIDS awareness is more important than breast cancer awareness because the efficacy of breast-cancer screening for women under 50 is questionable. HIV testing, on the other hand, has much clearer benefits, especially for people in risk groups. With over 50,000 diagnoses of HIV infections in the US each year and over 15,000 deaths, this problem is not going away. Indeed, the HIV infection rate among black males approaches the breast cancer rate in women.

More troubling, the cost of treating HIV is significantly greater than breast cancer. While breast cancer treatment is expensive, with the average total cost per person in one study of nearly $40,000, Charlotte clinician J. Wesley Thompson, who specializes in HIV/AIDS, told me that treating HIV costs an average of $30,000 per year. Over a lifetime, the cost of treating HIV is likely to be more than ten times the cost of treating breast cancer.

The social stigma of AIDS is costing people their lives, their dignity, and it’s costing all of us a lot of money — the Federal government spent nearly $3 billion on AIDS in 2008, not counting drug assistance or medicaid. In addition, all of us pay higher insurance rates to cover HIV/AIDS treatment.

We may only begin to make progress on AIDS when mainstream organizations like the NFL are prepared to launch high-profile awareness campaigns. Until then, HIV and AIDS are likely to remain forgotten diseases in America, with disastrous results for all of us.

*This blog post was originally published at The Daily Monthly*


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