Reflection on World AIDS Day: Tools to End the HIV Epidemic

I’ve been living with HIV since 2012. But I didn’t talk about it openly until 2019, when I was asked to share my story with the Indianapolis STAR. That’s when I really started to face and accept my diagnosis. That interview changed me and how I think about this disease, my health and my purpose in life. 

Since then, what have I learned?

I’ve learned that we HAVE the tools to end this epidemic. The science is clear, and the medications are life-saving. While treatment isn’t a cure, it does mean we can stop the virus from spreading. Having HIV is no longer a death sentence.

But let’s also be clear. People are still dying from from this disease. And every one of those deaths is preventable today.

We’ve been fighting for our lives for 40 years. Why do I have hope today that this current effort to end the HIV epidemic will be any different? Because we DO have the tools to end this epidemic. What are those tools? Testing, U=U, PrEP, Harm Reduction and Visibility. 

  • Testing – we have better testing today, including rapid tests and self-tests at home. They are available for FREE. Know your status. Take responsibility for sexual health, just like we do for physical and mental health. With other STI’s, I used to wait until I had symptoms before I would go into Bellflower to get tested. That is crazy – even moreso with HIV. We have lots more options today for HIV testing. If you’re sexually active, please get tested regularly. 
  • U=U – the science is clear. People living with HIV who are in treatment and have an undetectable viral load can not pass on the virus to their sexual partners. That’s HUGE! We need to be talking about this more. I believe we have a PrEP bias in our messaging. We need to be educating people more on U=U and the importance of getting into treatment. 
  • PreP – while the most important step is to get people into effective treatment, people who are HIV- have an option for their sexual health. PrEP reduces the can risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90% and from injection drug use by more than 74%.
  • Harm Reduction – as a person in long term recovery, I understand the benefits of a traditional 12 step program. It was critical in my early recovery – but eventually, stopped serving me. There are other options to abstinence. For some, the “all or nothing” approach can be a barrier to long-term recovery. And it turns out, harm reduction reduces the spread of infectious disease. Harm reduction data reveals a compelling inverse correlation between harm reduction methodology and HIV & Hepatitis C rates —as a nation’s commitment to harm reduction increases, rates of disease infection decrease. 
  • Visibility – I’ve come to believe that STIGMA is our only barrier to ending this epidemic. Stigma’s power lies in our silence. In the early AIDS epidemic, the mantra was SILENCE=DEATH. Today, I think our mantra needs to be SILENCE=STIGMA. We need more visibility to the public through self-advocacy, peer services & stories. Too many long term survivors are hiding in the shadows of the stigma of this disease – just like I was for 7 years. But just like we’ve seen in the recovery movement, the more people who come out of the closet, tell their story, the more we talk about HIV, the more likely it is for people to ask questions, get tested, get into treatment. And just like in the recovery movement, peer-based services like Peer HIV Coaches and Peer Linkage to Care Specialist will allow us to fully leverage individuals’ life experience to help get people into care. Stories matter! Visibility matters! SILENCE=STIGMA (We could call this one PLWH^2, or PLWH Squared!)

We’ve made HUGE advances in the first three of these tools – the science of testing, treatment and prevention are available and, at least in the US, free.

Now comes the human side of it – and I believe Harm Reduction and Visibility are the key levers we need to lean into more and more quickly if we have any hope of actually ending this epidemic by 2030. 

Thanks for listening. Keep tellin’ the story.

Signed ever faithfully,

The Right Reverend Lord C Todd Peacock III

Photo Credit: Jim Fore

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I see life as full of possibilities and the world full of beautiful people possessing unique and often untapped talents. I’m a learner and connector, seeking ways to leverage the abundance in this world through strong community.

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