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Author Thomas Suarez leads talk on Israel-Palestine conflict -

September 19, 2017

White dove, red ribbon

Over 35 years ago, in June 1981, the world learned of a new disease which would rapidly become an epidemic, spanning and devastating families, communities, the nation and the globe. That disease is human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or HIV/AIDS.

As of 2016, 36.7 million people were reported to be living with HIV/AIDS. This figure is larger than the entire populations of Australia (24.4 million) and Canada (36.2 million), and although HIV diagnoses have declined by 19 percent between 2005 and 2014 in the United States, important conversations are still lacking.

Have you ever talked to your friends about HIV/AIDS? Your parents? Your significant other? A professor? Have you ever talked to anyone, anywhere, about HIV/AIDS outside of a health classroom setting?

Personally, the dialogue surrounding HIV/AIDS has been woven into my life’s story since before I was born. The man I’m named after, my uncle, died of AIDS a year prior to my birth. He uprooted himself from San Francisco to Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1993, waiting for his death as this insidious disease took its course.

He died June 17, 1994 in the most beautiful home I have ever seen. Bushes of ocean roses caress the stone walls that protect the garden of his former estate. An archway with a view of the Atlantic Ocean stands tall, directly across the street from the garden gates like a portal into a different world, of a life that could have been, his gateway to heaven.

I never met my uncle, but 23 years later I feel now more than ever as if my life is an embodiment of the life he never got to live out, a life that ended far too soon.

Especially after coming out, and embracing the queer community, the conversation surrounding HIV/AIDS has become far more relevant and honestly terrifying to me.

Today, more than 1.2 million people (nearly twice the population of Boston) are living with HIV/AIDS in America. Of the 39,513 diagnosed with HIV in the U.S. in 2015, 82 percent of the males were gay and bisexual. This adds up to 26,375 people, roughly the size of the student body at UMass.

Yet we still aren’t having a larger discourse about this disease in an attempt to end the stigma that suffocates those living with HIV/AIDS. We are not having a discussion outside of the queer community or around the world about life-saving preventative treatments or testing that has the potential to end an epidemic that has lasted over 35 years, for the sake of comfort.

In a 2014 study launched by UNAIDS, it was reported that in roughly 35 percent of countries with data available, more than 50 percent of women and men held discriminatory attitudes toward people living with HIV.

What would it be like if we lived in a world where half the population discriminated against those with cancer? Or diabetes? Or pneumonia? All of which are among the top 10 leading causes of death in the US. It wouldn’t stand and we shouldn’t tolerate the hate that people harbor for a disease people did not choose to contract.

In life, you don’t choose the diseases that infect your body. You don’t ask for Alzheimer’s, cancer, depression, kidney disease or ALS. But when and if the time comes where someone develops a disease as deadly as any of the former, or HIV/AIDS, they deserve your respect, not your stigmatization.

Now more than ever, the fight against HIV/AIDS is charging forward, with the University of Massachusetts blazing the trail.

Katherine Luzuriaga, an immunologist at the University and one of TIME’s 100 most influential people of 2013, was a member of a team of three that successfully cured a newborn of HIV/AIDS. Luzuriaga has paved the way for HIV/AIDS research worldwide and I remember her saying in 2014 when she spoke at TedX UMass Amherst that “science is all about repetition.”

Social change is also all about repetition; they don’t say history repeats itself for nothing. If a never-ending, forward thinking and constructive dialogue about HIV/AIDS is established as the social norm, then there will be endless possibilities to what scientific and societal progress can be made.

There are resources available, even here on campus, to educate and protect yourself against HIV/AIDS. The first preventative method, besides wearing a condom, is getting tested. People who are sexually active should be getting tested for STDs and STIs once every three months.

On campus, University Health Services and the Stonewall Center sponsor rapid HIV and STI (gonorrhea and chlamydia) testing multiple times a semester. There is typically no cost (you or your parents’ insurance is billed) and if you want to get HIV tested without insurance the cost is $43 dollars, with results available 20 to 30 minutes after a simple finger prick, which is the most accurate form of testing.

The legacy of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. and the world is virulent because it is beyond a public health issue, it’s a human rights issue. For too long this disease has been put in a box that has yet to be truly opened because the fear of discrimination. The fact of the matter is that this disease is still an epidemic. It is claiming the lives of people worldwide. It could happen to anyone, and it could happen to me.

On my uncle’s flight to New England from California to move into the house he would eventually spend his last days in, he wrote a poem. He said the plane was his white dove, taking him to see the king.

If someone as incredible as him can be that elegant, beautiful and brave in the face of certain death, then the least we can all be is courageous enough to keep the legacy and conversation about HIV/AIDS alive.

Robert Rigo is the Collegian Editor-in-Chief and can be reached at rrigo@umass.edu.

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