As a public health professor, Christ follower, and public health practitioner, I am consistently forced to reflect upon the intersection of faith and protecting the needs of the population. One of the most pressing areas of intersection is the HIV/AIDS related stigma and discrimination that exists worldwide.
World AIDS Day is commemorated each year on December 1, since its inception in 1988. It is an international day that is intended to raise awareness of the AIDS pandemic, which is caused by the HIV virus. World AIDS Day is also reserved as a time to grieve the loss of those who have lost their lives due to AIDS. Government and health officials, nonprofit organizations, and many individuals around the world observe the day, oftentimes with health education and promotion programs that are specifically directed at both prevention and control.
What is HIV/AIDS?
HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is the virus that, if untreated, leads to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Unlike other viruses that may infect an individual, the human body is unable to completely combat the HIV virus without treatment. The virus attacks the body’s immune system, specifically its T cells. Eventually, the virus can destroy so many of these cells that the body’s immune system becomes unable to fight off infection and disease. Due to a compromised immune system, infected persons are susceptible to life-threatening opportunistic infections and cancers.
HIV is only transmitted through specific activities and the transmission of certain bodily fluids. Although it is most commonly known as a sexually transmitted infection, it can also be transmitted through breast milk and blood. These bodily fluids must come into contact with a mucous membrane, damaged tissue, or be directly injected into the bloodstream (needles or syringe) for person-to-person transmission to occur.
The current state of the pandemic
Currently, 36.9 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS, including 1.8 million children. Most of these children acquired the disease from their HIV-positive mothers during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. The vast majority of those living with HIV are in low- and middle-income countries. In 2017 alone, 53 percent of those living with HIV were from eastern and southern Africa, 16 percent from western and central Africa, 5.2 percent from Asia and the Pacific, and 6 percent were from Europe and South America.
Despite a greater understanding in recent scientific advances related to HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention, as well as years of laborious efforts by the global health community, a vast number of individuals still do not have access to prevention, care, or treatment. There is still no cure for the disease. With that being said, antiretroviral drugs are able to control the virus so that individuals can lead healthy lives and reduce their risk of transmitting the disease to others.
The HIV epidemic not only affects the health of individuals, it impacts households, communities, and the economic growth and development of global nations. Many of the countries that are most affected by the burden of the HIV/AIDS epidemic are also those that suffer from other diseases, food insecurity, and many other public health issues.
Despite these challenges to addressing the epidemic, there have been some successes and promising signs of progress. Due to new and innovative methods that have been implemented to target the epidemic, the number of HIV/AIDS related deaths has decreased over the years. Additionally, although still a pressing issue, the number of individuals receiving HIV treatment in underdeveloped nations has also increased.
Overall, despite the availability of an array of HIV-prevention tools and methodologies, there has not been a sufficient decrease in the rate of new infections, globally, and there is still much work that needs to be done.
HIV/AIDS, stigmatization, and our Christian responsibility
HIV/AIDS stigmatization certainly manifests itself differently across countries, communities, and religious groups. The fear surrounding the emerging HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s largely persists today. At that time, very little was known about HIV/AIDS transmission, which exacerbated fear of those who were infected due to the concern of contagion. This fear, coupled with the vast array of misinformation that persists to this day, are catalysts for a growing trepidation and exclusion of the HIV/AIDS population.
Regardless of how you may perceive those who have been infected with HIV/AIDS, our first cause for concern is not the fight against the global burden of disease. As Christians, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ. I would encourage you to not be fearful or apprehensive of these individuals. As followers of Christ, we must not be selective of who we love well. It is imperative that we re-examine ourselves to ensure that we are consistently reflecting the hands and feet of Jesus (Eph. 5:1-2). We must not allow the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS to cause us to neglect those affected by this disease, regardless of how it may have been contracted. Compelled by God’s love, we have a glorious opportunity to embrace human dignity in the midst of a fallen world as we minister with grace and compassion.
Caring for this vulnerable population is not an endorsement of unbiblical sexual activity or the use of illicit substances; it’s a commandment of the gospel. As an individual who has had the incredible privilege of working with HIV/AIDS populations in underdeveloped countries, I would urge Christians to view opportunities to serve this population as a chance to live out the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.