Since the early 1980’s, a virus traceable to the African jungle has cut deeply into the United States. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) remains one of the most widely feared illnesses today, and the confusion surrounding it contributes to that dubious infamy. Like any unforgiving human pathogen, it wreaks the most havoc where people are most vulnerable: those with sanitation, reproductive, and religious practices which enable the virus’ rapid spread, and those with weak health education. It was a shock when it struck the urban U.S., but the silver lining of the years since has been a coordinated global effort to study the effects of the virus and to address the shameful stigma which fuels its spread. This Friday, December 1st, is World AIDS Day.
The two acronyms so often paired as one – HIV and AIDS – are separate things. HIV, the tiny virus itself, attacks the human immune system, shutting it down and opening the door to other germs.
AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is the grave final stage of unchecked HIV infection, where the immune system is too weak to fight off so much as the common cold.
End HIV transmission.”
This battle-cry of World AIDS Day declares war not just on HIV, but on the rumor and misinformation that has plagued it since day one. Nearly 40 years after diving into mainstream scientific study of the virus, 1.2 million people in the U.S. are thought to be infected – at least 1 of 7 which don’t know it. Its slow onset is one reason it’s so difficult to track. So is the fact that HIV itself does not kill, but rather clears the path for more benign illnesses like hepatitis, pneumonia, or strep throat to do so instead. Perhaps most difficult of all, HIV overwhelmingly propagates through the most taboo of social practices: sex and drugs.
Incredibly, the leaps and bounds made in HIV improvement have seen a 10% decline in new U.S. diagnoses between 2010 and 2014. The bad news? Among the demographic disproportionally affected are still Hispanic men, mostly gay or bisexual. The worse news? That demographic has actually shown a 14% increase in diagnosis in the same time frame.
Moving invisibly to the eyes of most of the population, our nation’s migrant farmworkers face barriers to any health care: low insured rates, fear in seeking care, language differences, geographical isolation, and more. However, the greatest roadblock to preventing HIV could be addressed through effective and appropriate health education.
The exact social practices which enable HIV transmission can run wild in isolated small groups of mostly men – most without families, easy hygiene, or education above the average of 6th grade. Without an abundance of accessible information, it’s natural that some studies show that nearly half of farmworkers in a health survey thought HIV could be spread by mosquitos, and 20% were convinced that they could tell solely by physical appearance whether or not someone was infected. Difficult access to – and resistance towards – condoms makes safe sex practices unfortunately rare. On top of that, alcohol and reduced immune resistance from pesticide exposure are common co-morbidities to HIV infection.
World AIDS day is not for lamenting the hopelessness of HIV infection; HIV is not a death sentence, and will not necessarily lead to AIDS. Instead, this Friday is to address the hope that lies in new control drugs, vaccines, and most importantly in the knowledge we’ve gained about preventing HIV. Health education is difficult in the transient world of migrant farmworkers, but – as AFOP Health & Safety knows well – education is the key to good choices. It shows us our own power to stop risky habits, and to face the cloud of shame and misinformation still surrounding HIV.
For more on HIV/AIDS in farmworkers: