By Danielle Zimber, Public Services Outreach Services Navigator
My work at Mary’s Center focuses on HIV outreach and prevention, so celebrating World AIDS Day on December 1 is very meaningful to me. This day is designated as a time to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic as well as to mourn and remember all those who have died from the disease.
Personally, World AIDS Day marks a time to reflect on how far we’ve come in the fight against HIV and how far we have left to go. In particular, I’ve found myself returning to the first day of my job at Mary’s Center when my supervisor asked me:
“What do you think is the most frequent first question we get from patients who have just been diagnosed with HIV?”
I paused for a moment to consider and replied, “Am I going to die?”
“No,” he said. “It’s actually, ‘Am I going to be able to have a family?’”
His words strike at the heart of what it means to live with an HIV+ status in today’s world. Though HIV was once a death sentence, advances in biomedicine mean that HIV+ individuals can live entirely normal, healthy lives. With consistent treatment, HIV+ individuals can even achieve the status of undetectable, meaning that HIV is no longer detectable via standard blood tests, and they are unable to transmit HIV to other individuals through sexual contact.
Yet even with such extraordinary advances in HIV treatment, the idea of receiving an HIV diagnosis is still one that elicits tremendous fear and anxiety. As my supervisor’s words illustrate, what truly renders an HIV diagnosis so difficult is not so much the physical ramifications (as most patients in DC are able to access treatment), but rather the weight of stigma – the fear of being cut off from one’s family, friends, and future.
This truth is one that shapes the entire approach to HIV prevention and care at Mary’s Center. We recognize that ending the HIV epidemic hinges critically upon not just expanding treatment and diagnosis, but also eliminating the stigma around HIV and engaging the community in open and honest conversations about sexual health and prevention practices.
Our team starts with the understanding that health is about a lot more than just treating disease. Rather, health starts within communities and takes shape at the nexus between physical, social, and emotional well-being. With this in mind, we prioritize providing dignified and affirming care that is grounded in honoring the knowledge, experience, and unique identities that each patient brings to the table.
Today on World AIDS Day, I invite us all to reflect on how we can work together to end HIV. The responsibility to end this epidemic in DC is one that is shared equally by every one of us.
So, come visit us in the sexual health clinic at Mary’s Center for free STI/HIV testing and to learn about safe sex and HIV prevention practices such as PrEP – a once-a-day medication that reduces your chances of contracting HIV by 99%.
Our sexual health clinic at our Petworth Health Center is open to existing and new clients, has no registration process, requires no insurance, and has no restrictions on access. Learn more here. Your actions matter. Together, we can end HIV!