By Dr. Thanes Vanig, Founder and Chief Medical Officer at Spectrum Medical Care Center
I saw my first case of HIV when I was a medical student in Bangkok, and it was incredibly sad. I compare the beginning of the HIV epidemic to the COVID-19 pandemic when the disease was an alarming mystery. Patients were locked up in their rooms. We had to wear gowns, gloves, masks, a suit, and full personal protective equipment, just to see them. We were afraid of what we didn’t know.
In 1996, just one year before I opened Spectrum Medical Care Center, a major medical breakthrough changed everything for people with an HIV-positive diagnosis. You could now survive HIV, thanks to the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy. I went from regularly losing patients to seeing my patients live full lives. We now have the tools and medicine to treat people living with HIV as well as those who are at risk of acquiring HIV.
I think the end of the HIV epidemic is possible but only attainable through testing. This is why reducing the stigma around HIV is so important. Stigma is rooted in fear and prevents people from not just getting tested but seeking medical care and medications so their viral load is undetectable. When a person’s viral load is undetectable, they cannot transmit the virus to others (undetectable equals untransmittable). Knowing your status helps you choose options to stay healthy and protect others. For National HIV Testing Day on June 27 and beyond, join the effort to end the HIV epidemic by doing the following:
- Get Tested. HIV can affect anyone regardless of sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, age, or where they live. Anyone who is sexually active is at risk for contracting HIV, not just certain groups of people. HIV testing is the pathway to getting the care needed to stay healthy, regardless of your test result, and there are free testing resources available in your community. For instance, our “Testing After Dark” program provides free HIV and STI testing from 5 p.m.- 7 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month at our clinic. And this year, Walgreens, a household name, is organizing a national effort to end HIV by delivering free HIV testing and information through partnerships with health departments and community organizations across the country. We’ll be teaming up with one of the Walgreens locations in Phoenix to provide free HIV testing on National HIV Testing Day, and you can find a participating store near you by searching this interactive map.
- Self Reflection. Take time to self-reflect on whether you hold negative attitudes or beliefs about people living with HIV. Believing that only a certain group of people can get HIV, making moral judgments about people who take steps to prevent HIV transmission, or feeling that people deserve to get HIV because of their choices, all contribute to stigma.
- Talk Openly. When you talk openly about HIV, it can help normalize the subject. It also provides the space to correct misconceptions and help others learn more about HIV. But be mindful of how you talk about HIV and people with HIV. Learn which words have negative meanings for people at risk for or living with HIV and which are empowering. Be intentional when you choose your words and mindful of how they can affect those around you.
- Take Action. You can make a difference in stopping HIV stigma by learning more about HIV and sharing that knowledge with others- in person or on social media. I encourage you to get out and meet people who are living with HIV at community events and rallies. Connect with them, hear their stories, and perhaps you’ll find they’re not so different from you after all.
Dr. Thanes Vanig is the founder and Chief Medical Officer of Spectrum Medical Care Center, a Phoenix-based clinic that specializes in state-of-the-art, competent, and compassionate primary care for LGBTQ+ patients. Vanig, who is internationally recognized in HIV Medicine, speaks, publishes, and advises regularly. Dr. Vanig serves on the City of Phoenix Fast Track Cities Initiative and is a leader for the Maricopa START (State of Arizona Rapid Treatment) Program, immediately linking newly diagnosed HIV patients to care.)