MADISON- Myths and stigmas surrounding HIV/AIDS are still aplenty with the general public.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the body's immune system, specifically T-cells. The worst stage of HIV, the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), occurs when the immune system is so badly damaged the body becomes vulnerable to infection.
Bill Keeton, Vice President of Government and Public Relations at the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin (ARCW), said that myths, like that a person can still contract the virus from bug bites or a toilet seat, can still be prevalent. He said general awareness of HIV and how it's spread has been stagnant the last 15 to 20 years.
"For a long time I thought (knowledge about HIV) was getting better, but I'm not sure it is," Keeton said.
According to a survey done by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2012, more than three decades into the HIV epidemic, HIV remains a serious issue for teens and adults ages 15 to 24. Nearly three times as many black youth, and twice as many Latinos, say HIV/AIDS is an issue that personally concerns them, as compared to the white population.
Overall, Keeton said that HIV infection rates are going down in Wisconsin. However, when looking at the demographics, infection rates of younger gay men of color are rising in a virus that disproportionately impacts people of color.
"What we're seeing today is that people are getting diagnosed earlier," Keeton said.
Keeton said people of color are several times more likely to become infected than whites. Social determinants such as health, education rates and wealth all impact a community's risk for HIV.
"There's a disproportionate impact in those communities, and that's most telling of where we are today," Keeton said.
When HIV advocacy initially began, Keeton said it was generally born out of the gay rights movement. As the two movements were colliding, white gay men became the focus of advocacy work, which left out injection drug users, gay men of color and communities of color.
He said it's likely there were always high rates of infection with these groups.
"There has been a focus on HIV prevention methods that were previously targeted to gay men who were out," Keeton said. "Messages that resonate to white gay men might not reach or resonate with a young gay black kid."
According to the survey, 33 percent of young people say there is "a lot" of stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, and 51 percent said there is at least "some."
Keeton said one of the first questions HIV positive people are asked is how they contracted the disease. This often leads to people being stereotyped as drug users or as being promiscuous.
"This prevents people from getting care, which leads to more transmissions," Keeton said. "(These stigmas) create a disincentive for people to get the help they need."
One of the most important actions people can take to combat the virus is to get tested and to convince others to get tested. Once HIV positive people seek treatment, eventually they'll be "undetectable" as the virus weakens. At this point they will not be able to transmit the disease if they are keeping up with their medications.
"Get tested. If you know your own status you're less likely to engage in behaviors that'll lead to exposure," Keeton said.
He said to combat HIV/AIDS, people should know their status, use condoms and use clean needles if using injection drugs. Taking Pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP), a daily medicine taken to lower the chances of getting infected, also is an option.
Keeton said the ARCW anticipates positive patients to live just as full and happy lives as those who are HIV negative. However, it is an expensive disease that requires constant vigilance and may cost anywhere from $15,000-20,000 a month for medications, along with fairly frequent doctor visits.
"It's just as difficult to manage all of the things in life as it is to manage HIV," Keeton said.
That's where the ARCW comes in. It is an integrated multidisciplinary organization to help those with HIV live a long and happy life. They offer prevention methods, including condoms, needle exchanges and PrEP, treatment, mental and dental services, a pharmacy, a food pantry and legal services, all of which are designed to help people with HIV care for themselves and regain their health. They take on patients regardless of their ability to pay.
"We are starting to get to an HIV free generation, and we are getting to a point where we can end the epidemic," Keeton said.
He said the organization has ten different offices around Wisconsin, including one in Beloit. For more information, go to arcw.org.