Despite declining news coverage, HIV still persists

Dani Steinberg

 “I was pretty shocked [when I was diagnosed]. I was dating two guys at the time and was pretty involved in the HIV community, so I thought I knew everything that I was supposed to do [to avoid getting it]. I got my test results, and my initial reaction was, ‘this can’t be; it’s got to be a false positive,’” Ferdinand Garcia, an HIV activist who tested positive in 2002, said.

The HIV pandemic began in the 1980s, spreading through unprotected sex, birth, breastfeeding, contaminated blood transfusions and shared injectible equipment. As the HIV Pandemic began to escalate, the media played a large role in shaping the public perception of the virus in the 1980s and early 2000s. Although there are approximately 38 million people across the world living with HIV, over 50 percent of the U.S. population reported that they had discriminated against those with HIV, according to a 2015 United Nations report; these stigmas were largely based on misinformation and misconceptions. Many were ignorant and believed HIV was a “gay pneumonia,” given that predominantly gay people were testing positive.

Pamela Vig, the chief scientific officer for Mirum Pharmaceuticals and former employee for Gilead Sciences, believes that the lack and inaccuracy of coverage in the media has caused society to discuss and understand the virus less than when the pandemic first began. 

“I do not think the media covers [HIV] at all anymore. It used to be everywhere, all the time, similar to COVID-19 being in the news [this year]. People were terrified at the time,” Vig said.

Although Garcia was slightly educated on the disease, he was still under the impression that testing positive implied imminent death. If Garcia had contracted the virus in the 1980s, this may have been the case, but because of recent discoveries, HIV is no longer life-threatening.

“When I was first diagnosed [with HIV], I thought I knew everything I needed to know, [but when] I became positive, everything I knew about HIV went out the window. I seriously thought that within five years I would be dead,” Garcia said.

Hoping to educate the world, The San Francisco AIDS Foundation works to educate on HIV.

After realizing his life is not threatened, Garcia decided to raise awareness for those diagnosed to combat the decline in HIV media coverage. Currently, he is working with the San Francisco AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) Foundation; AIDS is a condition that develops once HIV has damaged the immune system.  

“[Our] mission is to make sure that anyone who has HIV can live a normal life and that we are able to continue to educate people,” Garcia said. 

Garcia is on the board of the foundation and goes on two educational trips a year to spread awareness to young adults and children in countries around the world. He visited an HIV orphanage in Myanmar, which is home to 105 children who had been orphaned as a result of the virus.

“I told them: ‘don’t let your situation dictate your future. Just because you are HIV positive doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish what you want to accomplish … just listen to your teachers, listen to your elders, do the hard work and whatever it is that you want to do, you’ll be able to do it,’” Garcia said. 

Since the discovery of the virus, scientists and doctors have continually been working to find and improve treatment options. 

“Your body’s at war with this virus. A normal, healthy human being can take a cold or any kind of sickness in their immune system and essentially fight off that cold. But, when you have HIV, your viral load, or your immune system, is pretty depleted. So the analogy that I like to use is that taking medication is like sending in an army to help fight the virus,” Garcia said.

Discussing with members of the Egyptian Ministry of Health, Samuel hopes to show people that living with AIDS is not a death sentence. Photo courtesy of Clifford Samuel.

20 years ago, doctors were still assessing the effectiveness of different drugs and had patients taking a “cocktail” of pills; today, patients in the U.S., such as Garcia, manage their symptoms with just one pill. In developing countries, such as Myanmar, that one pill is not available. In an effort to remedy this, Clifford Samuel, prior Gilead Sciences senior vice president of access operations and emerging markets, worked to convince over 140 developing countries’ governments to disperse HIV/AIDS medications to their citizens.

“Unfortunately, with governments in poor countries, health is not always a priority. So as I started having a conversation about HIV/AIDS and why [the countries] should set aside money to buy the medication to treat their citizens … [explaining] if you did nothing, then you would have a large population of your citizens dying of HIV/AIDS,” Samuel said. “That would be detrimental to your future gross domestic product (GDP) growth; the economies will not grow if you have a ton of people dying.”

In addition to persuading these countries into spending money on medications to treat HIV, Gilead also gave their drug recipe to Indian manufacturers to make a generic version of the medication. This generic version of the drug is made cheaper and more accessible, allowing people in 116 countries to obtain access to the medication. According to Samuel, even once the drug is available, there are still many obstacles to overcome in the distribution and intake of the medication.

Meeting with the president of Georgia, Samuel advises the country how to best stop the spread of AIDS; Photo courtesy of Clifford Samuel.

“[The barriers] vary. Some days, people have the medication and are willing to take it, but they do not have clean running water. [Other days], they have the medication and they have clean running water, but the mother does not have enough breast milk to produce food for her baby, so she does not care about taking medicine,” Samuel said. 

It is now up to these countries’ governments to make sure that HIV is still being globally discussed and medications are becoming accessible to all. More locally, U.S. schools and teachers specifically incorporate HIV into sexual health curriculums to ensure the country is adequately educated. 

Redwood Social Issues teacher, David Plescia, along with other social issue teachers, dedicates a class period each year to teach his classes about and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Both STDs and STIs are an infection that is transmitted through sexual contact, caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites, a STI only becomes an STD once symptoms present themselves.

“More than the education [about STDs] it’s the pushing that STDs are not completely taboo [and] not completely bad news. I think sometimes if you get too much into [the details about the disease, then students] get overwhelmed. But, if you actually look at the statistics for the amount of people that have [STIs they are] quite prevalent.”  Plescia said. 

Highlighting that STIs are common when teaching helps students realize HIV should not be stigmatized but instead discussed regularly. While there are still misconceptions surrounding HIV, medicine has progressed, and Samuel acknowledges the notable progress the U.S. has made. 

“I think it’s less of a stigma [now]. When I started it was considered a gay disease. No one talked about [HIV]; it was all taboo. No one talked about the transgender population and why they are at a higher risk. No one talked about the health disparities in inner cities, … [but] that conversation is happening now,” Samuel said.