Doctor reflects on AIDS perceptions over the years

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) Across the world people are recognizing a disease that has killed an estimated 39 million. According to the Centers for Disease Control, December 1 is known as World AIDS Day, a day to bring awareness to the disease that still affects about 1.2 million Americans.

AIDS first became predominate in the 1980s. Dr. Scott Stienecker, a Parkview Health epidemiologist, started his career at a time when a failed cancer drug called AZT was the only treatment available.

“Retrovirus was the only medicine we had. We knew it could delay the progression of AIDS, it could delay death. But we knew death at that time was inevitable,” Stienecker said.

As the disease began to spread across the country, people began to avoid anyone who was infected with the virus.

“When I look at our current Ebola panic compared to HIV I notice strikingly similarities,” Stienecker said. “When I was in residency and fellowship everybody was scared to take a lunch tray into an HIV patient or shake their hand, or even be in the same room. But now it’s considered normal to shake hands or eat food prepared by someone with HIV.”

Today, the AIDS virus is not a death sentence. Stienecker explained, “since that diagnosis, we have greatly expanded the number of drugs that we have available to treat AIDS.”

Statistic about AIDS lined a hallway on the campus of IPFW for World AIDS Day on December 1, 2014.
Statistic about AIDS lined a hallway on the campus of IPFW for World AIDS Day on December 1, 2014.

However, the stigma that goes along with AIDS and HIV has not progressed in the same way. Aids Task Force Community Coordinator Timothy Price addressed the public’s perception of AIDS in an event at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne Monday.

“Were looking at stigma… Focusing on the kind of experience that people living with HIV experience,” Price said. “Though they have just a virus, like somebody with the flu, it’s a virus that brings along with it a lot of baggage.”

Stienecker noted that the biggest hurdle in overcoming AIDS is education. In a presentation, Prince addressed language used when discussing AIDS and the assumptions made to those living with HIV. Also, a LGBT group on campus offered free 20 minute HIV testing.

“Stigmas lead people away from testing because of the underlying idea that it’s better to not know than to deal with that kind of experience,” Price said.

The CDC recommends that everyone be tested at least once between the ages of 13 and 64. According to health department records, about 400 people in the greater Fort Wayne area are infected with HIV.

Price said he’s not surprised about the lack of understanding about the disease because our culture has difficulty with “topics that hover around the edge of sexuality.”

Stienecker expressed that AIDS and HIV was considered to be a gay man’s disease, however, that has recently changed. Statistics from the CDC show that African Americans are increasingly being diagnosed with HIV infections. Regardless of changing statistics and stigmas, treatment for the disease has come a long way since it was first diagnosed in the U.S.

“I think what most people don’t realize is that years ago, the amount of pills and medication necessary to control  the disease was burdensome with lots of side effects and it was very debilitating,” Stienecker said.  “Whereas today, we have people living with normal lives, taking one pill a day to keep their HIV under control… and those people are just like you and me.”

For more information on World AIDS Day, visit the CDC’s website here.

Click here to see a list of sites in Indiana that provide counseling and confidential and anonymous testing for the HIV virus

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