The reality of living with HIV in America

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The Reality of Living With HIV in America

Today is World AIDS Day, an important event — not only for the 34 million people currently living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, but for all of us who can help to destigmatize these conditions. Though HIV has re-entered headlines lately, it seems that we as a society still haven't appropriately shifted the way we think and talk about the virus. The truth: HIV is no longer a death sentence, and those who receive treatment for it have life expectancies that rival those of HIV-negative people. A less-optimistic truth? According to the CDC, nearly one eighth of the 1.2 million Americans living with HIV are unaware of their positive status.

There seems to be a paradox in our approach to discussing, treating, and curing HIV. Millennials are growing up after the U.S. AIDS epidemic — but also without new images to replace those of the syndrome's gruesome initial outbreak in the '80s. In fact, in recent years, one in four new cases of HIV was contracted by someone between the ages of 13 and 24. One could speculate, then, that the lack of education and conversation surrounding HIV and AIDS may be leading to their spread.

So why aren't we talking about these illnesses as much as we used to? And what does it actually mean to live with HIV today? Compelled by a significant (yet largely unknown) outbreak in the small town of Austin, IN, I set out in search of stories about HIV from those who are treating it and living with it. I wanted to find out what the virus looks like today — to hear just a few of the many stories and to contribute to an updated depiction of what it means to live HIV-positive.

What I found: The reality of HIV in America is, of course, unique to each individual who is living with it. I spoke with: a young veteran who (like most infected in Austin, IN) contracted the virus through intravenous drug use; a millennial woman who contracted it through sexual intercourse; and an artist and dancer in New York who was born infected.

One resounding message I heard in speaking to those who are fighting to cure HIV/AIDS is that the simple act of talking about these conditions helps de-stigmatize them. For many who are positive, telling their stories of life with HIV is the first step towards healing. And, for those looking to support the HIV/AIDS community, the first step should be to listen.

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