December may mark the beginning of the Christmas period, but it also marks the start of an incredibly important awareness campaign. The 1st December is officially World AIDS Day, and it provides an opportunity for the world to demand that society sits up and listens. Unfortunately, although society has progressed in its understanding of the disease since the epidemic began in the early 1980’s, there are still a plethora of misconceptions rife within society that continue to demonise and stigmatise AIDS sufferers. World AIDS Day aims to bring about broad scale public consciousness, awareness and provide a platform for those fighting against the disease to speak out.

Today, there are an estimated 34 million people living with HIV and AIDS across the world. But it’s not just the illness that is effecting their lives. Its the ongoing stigma that is attached to AIDS.

Did you know that a large proportion of society still don’t know the difference between AIDS and HIV? It is important to understand that they are two separate diseases and World AIDS Day aims to provide necessary  education on symptoms, causes and all the key information required to have a complete understanding of the disease.

  • HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that damages the cells in your immune system and weakens your ability to fight everyday infections and disease.
  • AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the name used to describe a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that happen when your immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus. (Source: NHS UK website)

According to the National AIDS Trust, even after more than 30 years of knowledge of the HIV virus, many people are still in the dark about the realities of living with the disease. People still believe that they can get HIV just from being around those with the virus… this couldn’t be further from the truth. You can’t get AIDS from breathing the same air as someone who is HIV positive or touching a doorknob after a HIV-positive person. To those who understand the basics of what HIV is, these ideas sound ludicrous. However, to the 1 in 8 people that don’t understand that you can live a normal life with the right treatment, this really does make up part of their ‘understanding’.

A Conversation with Derek Polley

Derek Polley is an established entrepreneur and businessman who lives in Lynchburg, Virginia and the keynote speaker at this year’s World AIDS Day: Increasing Impact Through Transparency, Accountability and Partnerships. World AIDS Day is something that is very close to Derek’s heart, as tragically in 1996, he sadly lost his mother to AIDS. Derek has since had a passion for raising awareness for the cause and has kindly agreed to speak to Women in Healthcare UK to share both his, and his mother’s story.

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Now, we are incredibly sorry to hear of the tragic loss of your mother to AIDS in 1996. At the time, what was life like in society for someone suffering with AIDS?
Due to the lack of education about the disease in 1996, there was a lot of fear that surrounded AIDS. Everyone associated disease with being gay, bisexual, or a sex worker. Because of those labels, people were very hesitant to reveal that they had the disease. I also think this led to people who were not homosexual or sex workers believing that they were immune from contracting the disease. 
Of course, nothing in life prepares you for the news that a loved one has died, but I’m sure nothing prepares you for the diagnosis that they have AIDS either. What happened when she was diagnosed and how did you deal with it?
Unfortunately at the time of my Mother’s diagnosis, certain family members felt it was in my best interest to not know certain details of her health. My mother was already incarcerated when she contracted the HIV virus. She was addicted to heroine, and used a needle that was contaminated with HIV. I did have one family member who decided to tell me the truth. My first reaction was denial. It was hard for me to wrap my mind around something like that devastating happening to my mother. 
At the time, there was a lack of education on AIDS which aggravated discrimination, fear, lies and stigma. Was this something you were massively aware of at the time and if so, how did you deal with this?
Even at the age of 12, I was very aware of the stigma that came along with aids. I remember people’s reaction when it was  discovered my mom had the disease. People were confused as to how do you contract the disease, how can it spread, and how can it be controlled. There was concern about whether it could be spread while sweating, sneezing, or simply touching someone’s skin. I compressed all of my emotions and anger and began to act out. 
Although there have been a plethora of incredible advances in medicine, do you think that the stigma still remains in society today despite these advances?
 Because there are organizations that are willing to raise awareness and help with the education, I feel that the stigma is not as prevalent as it was in the 90’s. We still have a long way to go with educating our communities and informing or youth about the facts and ways to prevent the disease.
What do you personally think the key is to tackling the stigma that still exists and how do you think we can move forward in creating AIDS prevention?
In order to tackle the stigma that is associated with AIDS, people who have been infected or affected by the disease have to start to share our stories. For too long we have let people outside of the aids community dictate the narrative and control the discussion. Now that there are platforms that elevate our voices and our stories, we have the ability to change the perception of the disease and how it perceived.
What are your hopes for the future?
The one place where women’s HIV prevalence reaches and sometimes exceeds that of men is in our jails and prisons. Though the percentage of women in state and federal prisons with HIV has been on the decline for nearly two decades, the rates still far outpace the national averages: According to the most recent numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which collects data from inmates in state and federal correctional facilities, 1.3 percent of female inmates are HIV-positive. If that doesn’t sound high, consider that the HIV infection rate for the general female population is only 0.14 percent. That means that women in state and federal correctional facilities are over nine times more likely to be HIV-infected than women on the outside.
Nearly 80 percent of women in jails and over half of women in prison are mothers—providing quality rehabilitation for women who need it most would benefit these women, their families, and their communities.
So how do we fight this crisis? Diverting women who have experienced poverty, trauma, and substance abuse to mental-health and drug-treatment services can minimize their risk of being incarcerated at the outset. Providing impoverished women and their families with adequate housing and social services can mitigate the relationship between poverty and hazardous, illegal activities.
Cooperation between community clinics and correctional facilities could facilitate healthy reentry into communities for released inmates who are HIV-infected, which can ensure they are able to continue their anti-retroviral treatment and reduce further transmission.
We can’t expect this problem to go away by continuing to lock up the vulnerable and the needy. The money we’re spending on incarcerating women would be much better spent on efforts to prevent their initial introduction to the criminal-justice system, and reduce their risk of HIV infection: adequate housing, robust responses to domestic violence, and social services that provide hope for their future.

Wear your red ribbon on the 1st December to get involved in raising awareness for HIV. Together, we can end the stigma surrounding the disease.

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