World AIDS Day

By Daniel Biss

Today, we observe World AIDS Day. In the 34 years since the discovery of HIV and AIDS in 1983, the science around the virus has moved at a breakneck pace. Exciting new advances in prevention and breakthroughs in treatment mean contracting HIV is no longer a death sentence.

But there is still much work to do. Misunderstanding breeds fear, which discourages people from getting tested, and increases risk of further transmission. Education, prevention, treatment – each of these is interrelated and integral to addressing the epidemic.

Ending the Stigma

Rapid progress in the medical community can make it difficult for people to keep up with new information, and so outdated fears can persist, leading to stigmatization. An innovative public information campaign would reduce fear, increase awareness of new preventative measures and treatments, and thus decrease the further spread of the disease.

The stigmatization of people living with HIV extends into the criminal justice system. In the late 1980s, Illinois was one of many states that made it a crime to transmit HIV. This law is still on the books, and it undermines both our treatment and prevention efforts. The most effective strategy for combating HIV is to emphasize testing and disclosure – two things that cannot happen if doing so puts people living with HIV at risk of criminal charges. Furthermore, criminalizing the spread of an illness unfairly stigmatizes those infected, especially when advancements in medicine mean people living with the virus can now live healthy and productive lives. We must decriminalize HIV transmission – having a virus should not be a criminal offense.

Reducing Transmission, Focusing on Prevention and Treatment

While we continue our efforts to find a cure, we must also work to reduce transmission. This means fully funding programs that provide information, testing, and treatment to at-risk communities. HIV testing must be free and easily accessible, regardless of geography or insurance plan.

Prevention is a priority. Gov. Bruce Rauner has slashed more than $1 million from the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP). This funding must be restored and expanded to provide innovative preventative treatments like PrEP, a daily pill that has been successful in preventing infection. I support funding for programs like PrEP 4 IL, and requiring private insurance companies to cover PrEP.

Treatment, also funded by ADAP, must be available to everyone living with HIV or AIDS, no matter their financial situation. Antiretroviral therapy both keeps people living with HIV healthy, while also preventing transmission. The CDC has concluded that when a person is considered “undetectable,” meaning that the number of copies of the virus in their body is so low that it doesn’t react to regular blood tests, it is far less likely that they can transmit the virus. To prevent transmission among intravenous drug users, the age limit to purchase clean needles must be eliminated.

We must also ensure counseling is provided to help people cope with a new diagnosis and to assist people living with HIV or AIDS to navigate the often confusing patchwork of public and private programs that make up our healthcare system.

We have made tremendous progress in preventing and treating HIV and AIDS. But we must not rest until the virus has been eradicated, and the State of Illinois must be a leader in that fight.