Reminder: HIV Is Not Necessarily A Death Sentence

JVN Reminds Us That You Can Still Live Your Very Best Life With HIV

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Jonathan Van Ness/Twitter and Jeff Kravitz/Getty

Recently, Queer Eye star and overall human ray of sunshine Jonathan Van Ness shared that he is HIV positive with the public for the first time. He doesn’t owe the world his medical history, but his choice to share his truth is crucial to furthering public understanding of HIV. I didn’t even think I could love him more. Then he went and got so brave and amazing, and gosh, I just think the world is super lucky to have JVN.

Unfortunately, when I read his story across various media outlets, I saw hundreds of sad reacts and comments saying things like, “Oh, no! I love him so much! We can’t lose JVN!”

Sigh. There is so much outdated misinformation and fear swirling around in the general public about HIV and AIDS. I am so glad Jonathan has brought this issue to the forefront. It’s really time to set the record straight about HIV and AIDS.

HIV and AIDS are still a major global public health concern, but there is so much hope now. According to UNAIDS.org, in 2018 (the latest data available), “37.9 million people globally were living with HIV,” but “23.3 million of those people were accessing antiretroviral therapy!” New HIV infections have dropped 40% since 1997, and AIDS deaths have been reduced by more than 55% since 2004. Last year, 770,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses, as compared to 1.7 million in 2004. We have a long way to go to eradicate this virus, but science is making so much progress.

For most people who test positive, HIV can be a manageable illness with the right course of treatment. The stigma around HIV and AIDS was always completely unwarranted because mistreating someone due to their health always sucks, but with today’s medical advances, HIV is truly no longer a “boogie man” to be feared.

In the United States, every state has an AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) that is part of your state’s health department. These programs receive federal funding through the Ryan White Program to help patients who are living with HIV and AIDS. According to the ADAP Advocacy Association, The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program is “the largest Federal healthcare funding program focused exclusively on filling the gaps in HIV/AIDS care not covered by other funding sources for individuals living with HIV/AIDS without health insurance, with insufficient healthcare coverage, or lack financial resources for HIV disease care. Part B of the Ryan White CARE Act provides funding for ADAP.”

We recently spoke with a director of one such ADAP program, who said that their primary goal is to link every HIV-positive individual in the state to patient care, with a further goal of helping each person become virally suppressed, and eventually, undetectable. With antiretroviral drug therapy and quality healthcare, this is an attainable goal for nearly everyone.

When a person’s viral load becomes undetectable, they are no longer capable of transmitting the virus to anyone else. People with very suppressed viral levels can live healthy, normal lives with HIV.

Even a person whose HIV infection has progressed to the point of an AIDS diagnosis qualifies for treatment. It’s still possible for them to eventually become undetectable. Medically, they will always be considered a person with AIDS, but will feel mostly healthy. They will also be unable to pass the virus along.

The ADAP department also handles perinatal HIV. A pregnant woman with HIV can contact the department for treatment during pregnancy, reducing the likelihood that she will transmit the virus to her baby. If the baby is born positive, they qualify for their own treatment, too.

ADAPs are income-based programs. The income guidelines vary from state to state and are based on family size. It’s worth exploring for every person, because the income guidelines aren’t always as strict as they are for other assistance programs. Many people with moderate incomes still qualify for these life-saving services.

In addition to AIDS drug assistance, the program provides outpatient medical services, including dental and vision, to uninsured HIV positive people at no cost to them.

But there is also help for people with health insurance. ADAP assists with co-pays, premiums and out-of-pocket expenses for insured individuals with HIV, as long as they meet program income requirements. Counseling is provided for all patients.

Care is available for every resident of the state, regardless of immigration or housing status. Undocumented individuals and people experiencing homelessness can seek care without discrimination or fear. US privacy laws protect all personal health information, and the department doesn’t report to any immigration agency.

The department can also direct patients to people who can assist with securing housing and transportation so that there are no barriers to care.

Even though it’s totally unwarranted, there is still a stigma surrounding HIV that won’t seem to go away. ADAP employees acknowledge that. They do everything they can to ensure that privacy concerns don’t stop a person from seeking care. Anyone can seek treatment without fear of being outed to their family or workplace. Even internally, case managers and coordinators use identification numbers instead of legal names in all written and verbal correspondence. ADAP closely guards patient identities for utmost privacy.

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“We have to pass the Equality Act” @speakerpelosi said to me. I said, with Mitch McConnell how?? Speaker Pelosi said, (I’m paraphrasing here) the voters in states with Republican Senators MUST put pressure on their Senators to force McConnell to bring the #equalityact up to vote. The Equality Act is exactly the legislation that would protect LGBTQ people from the discrimination we would face if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Trump Administration and Justice Department petition to be able to allow employers to FIRE LGBTQ people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. If you consider yourself an ALLY and live in a state with a Republican Senator I IMPLORE you to call, email, and mail their office and ask them to VOTE on the Equality Act. @humanrightscampaign

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This program is incredible. Healthcare costs in the United States are out of control. Some of the drugs required to reduce a patient’s viral load cost more in a month than some people make all year. The AIDS Drug Assistance Program makes these medications accessible to people for whom HIV would otherwise be a death sentence.

People who are at a high-risk of contracting HIV may qualify for government assistance to cover the cost of Truvada, which is commonly called PrEP.  It’s is a pre-exposure drug that can prevent HIV infection. The ADAP program doesn’t specifically cover Truvada, but if you call your local program coordinator, they can direct you to your state’s AIDS prevention program. HIV testing is widely available at little or no cost through your health department as well.

We have made huge strides in caring for people with HIV, but it is still vital to protect yourself from HIV when possible. Always practice safe sex, refrain from IV drug use, and make careful decisions about your body and your health.

But if you or a loved one find yourself facing an HIV diagnosis, take a deep breath and proceed without fear. There is a full life available to you. Medicine gets closer to eradicating the spread of this virus every day.

You can find a link to your state’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program at NASTAD.org.