World AIDS Day: Fighting the Stigma Is Half the Battle

RibbonThey say words can never hurt you, but in certain parts of the world, there are three letters that can take away everything dear to you: HIV.

Can you imagine having your family disown you? What if doctors refused to treat you, even with basic care? What would it feel like if you were not allowed to pursue any form of education? How about if you had no possibility of a future with a romantic partner?


We will never make strides in preventing HIV transmission until we confront the taboos that surround it.


This is reality for millions of men, women, and children in sub-Saharan Africa who have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. As of 2013, that number was 24.7 million, which accounts for the vast majority of the world’s total reported cases, which by 2014 approached 37 million people, 2.6 million of whom were children. In 2013 alone, 1.5 million sub-Saharan Africans were newly infected. Since the first case was reported in 1981, a certain stigma has always lingered around the disease. Many in the United States refer to it as the “gay disease” or accuse those infected of bestiality. They may say that someone who has been diagnosed should avoid intimacy, believing that a person with HIV is incapable of functional relationships without infecting their partner. In Africa, the implications are even more harsh. Often believed to be a “curse from God,” many regions exile an infected person from their community.

Worse, the stigma does not stop with individuals. It bleeds into the legal, political, and economic arenas as well. This is true worldwide. Some places have prosecuted women for transmitting the virus to their child, or have prosecuted individuals for not disclosing their positive status even if they have reached an undetectable viral load through antiretroviral therapy (ART). The discrimination surrounding a positive diagnosis is cited as the primary hurdle in addressing prevention and care. Continue reading

The Best of 2014: Our Bloggers Pick Their Favorite Posts

The year 2014 was a big one here at the blog — we published 146 new pieces, many of which educated our readers about our endorsed candidates during the midterm elections. In addition to energizing voters, we fostered health literacy with our pieces about sexual, reproductive, and preventive health care, and promoted social justice causes with articles on women’s and LGBTQ rights. Below, we share our bloggers’ best pieces from 2014!

kidsCare joined our blogging team this year, and hit the ground running with two consecutive posts about her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Africa. In August, she observed National Immunization Awareness Month with a reflection on the importance of vaccination — both in the developing world and here in the United States. During her time in the Peace Corps, Care saw the devastation that diseases like measles, meningitis, and chickenpox wrought in the communities she served. Access to vaccines was not taken for granted in Western Africa — it was seen as a matter of life or death. Later, when Care returned to the United States — where many of us do take this access for granted — she discovered first-hand what happens in states with high vaccination-refusal rates. So if you don’t think skipping shots is a big deal, think again!

pillflag thumbnailMatt’s posts tackled a lot of topics this year, but in light of last month’s less-than-stellar election results, we’d like to shine the spotlight on his post from last June, Six Things Arizona Is Doing Right. Across the state, communities are recognizing the importance of comprehensive sex education, affirming transgender rights, promoting body acceptance, and fighting against domestic violence! So if Arizona politics have been bumming you out lately, read about six things we’re doing right, from the Capitol to the Pascua Yaqui Nation, and from Tempe to Tucson!

zombies thumbnailAnna focused mostly on sexually transmitted diseases this year, but one of her favorite posts was an evaluation of different birth control methods’ suitability during the zombie apocalypse. Maybe if more female writers were hired in Hollywood, “minutiae” like family planning would be addressed in zombie-filled scripts and screenplays. But instead, the female characters that populate these narratives don’t seem overly worried about unintended pregnancies (and somehow find the time and the supplies for the removal of their underarm hair). Until our zombie dramas are more realistic in their handling of women’s issues, be prepared for the worst and read Anna’s assessment of your best bets for birth control. (Her pick for the apocalypse, by the way, is the implant!)

afghan girlRachel observed the International Day of the Girl Child in October by focusing on sexual violence against girls. Unsurprisingly, this problem can be found in every corner of the earth, and Rachel discusses atrocities in both the developing world and in industrialized nations. Despite deep-seated misogyny that permeates many cultures, positive changes are made possible by the work of activists, from young girls risking their lives fighting for the right to education in Pakistan, to advocates lobbying to strengthen penalties for convicted rapists, as in the case of Audrie’s Law, signed by California’s governor last October. Rachel’s provocative, disturbing, and informative post asks us if empowering girls is good enough — or if we also need to address the root of the problem, which lies with the perpetrators and their enablers.

clinic escortsStacey, a former clinic escort, helped our patients for more than a year, and in March she drew from that experience in an incredibly powerful piece on the importance of protecting the buffer zone, the distance that anti-abortion protesters were made to keep between themselves and patients. The buffer zone was one of the tools we used to protect our patients’ dignity and safety. It was no surprise, then, that the buffer zone came under attack this year when it was challenged in front of the Supreme Court. What did come as a surprise to many reproductive-justice advocates, however, was the highest court’s unanimous decision to strike down buffer zones for protesters at abortion clinics, helping to make 2014 a dismal year in women’s rights.

Gay Liberation Front 1969Marcy’s post on the Stonewall Riots broke traffic records on our blog — not bad for one of our newest bloggers — so if you missed it the first time around, check it out now. Forty-five years ago, the modern LGBTQ movement was born as the patrons of a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn rose up against police. The LGBTQ population was often a target for harassment by police, and the Stonewall Riots turned that violence back on their oppressors. We now celebrate Pride every June in honor of the Stonewall Riots, and while our society has made tremendous gains over the past 45 years, we still have a lot of work to do. Learn about the riots themselves, as well as the current state of LGBTQ rights in the United States.

two women thumbnailMichelle is another new blogger, and her inaugural post discussed a gynecological disorder called PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome. PCOS is characterized by a constellation of symptoms that can include irregular periods, weight gain, sluggishness, thinning hair, depression, acne, infertility, and ovarian cysts. It affects an estimated 5 million Americans, but it’s thought to be underdiagnosed and its symptoms are largely stigmatized. Michelle lays out an interesting case for how this stigma might contribute to doctors failing to recognize it: It’s easier to blame someone’s dietary choices or physical-activity levels for weight gain and fatigue, rather than look more closely at underlying physiological problems, such as hormone imbalances, that could actually be causing the sufferers’ symptoms. For Michelle, awareness is key, so check out her informative post!

NOW thumbnailTori taught us about the Scheidler v. NOW “trilogy” of Supreme Court cases, which pitted anti-abortion activist Joseph Scheidler against feminist advocacy group National Organization for Women. In case you’re scratching your head, wondering what the heck Scheidler v. NOW is and why it’s important, check out Tori’s fantastic summary of this series of cases. She describes the atmosphere of violence that increasingly characterized the anti-abortion movement throughout the 1980s, eventually giving rise to a lawsuit, filed by NOW, claiming that abortion protesters’ tactics qualified as extortion under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Now that the Supreme Court has struck down buffer zones, the anti-abortion movement’s history of harassment, vandalism, and violence is more relevant than ever.

SILCS_diaphragm thumbnailRebecca is a pharmacist who brings her passion for reproductive autonomy into focus with her series of posts on contraceptive methods. In August, she informed us about a one-size-fits-most, over-the-counter diaphragm that should hit U.S. pharmacies in 2015. Although it might kick off a resurgence in the diaphragm’s popularity in the industrialized world, it was actually developed to make effective contraception more accessible in developing countries. As Rebecca told us, we Americans are very privileged to have access to such a wide range of contraceptive options — but it’s important to remember that the variety of choices we enjoy isn’t available to everyone, who might face cultural, financial, or logistical barriers when it comes to having the means to control their fertility. Check out Rebecca’s post about Caya, the next generation of diaphragms, coming to a pharmacy near you but helping women worldwide!

Care Is Here Because She’s Seen a World Without Planned Parenthood

Children in West Africa. Photograph courtesy of Care.

Children in West Africa. Photograph courtesy of Care.

Our newest blogger is named Care, who shares with us the lessons she learned as a Peace Corps volunteer in this powerful piece.

My relationship with Planned Parenthood has grown and evolved over my life. When I was a kid, my dad, who was a clinic escort for Planned Parenthood, would tell me how important their work was and how thankful I should be every day for it. He used to walk up to anti-abortion people and ask them how many kids they had adopted, or offered to adopt, during their time as protesters.


In West Africa, there are no coat hangers. There are a lot of bicycle spokes, though.


I was never more than cursorily interested in Planned Parenthood and what they did though. Sure, they did STD prevention and treatment. Sure, they did women’s health. Sure, they did abortion services. But, like most people who grew up post-Roe v. Wade, that last one meant little to me. I never knew a world where abortions and birth control were inaccessible. I never knew a world where condoms and safer sex were not taught. So it is understandable that my dad, who would tell me about girls he knew who were seriously injured or even killed by back-alley abortions, would be more of an activist than I was.

This all changed in 2006. I was 23 years old and a Peace Corps volunteer. I was assigned to a village in a remote part of West Africa. The community told me that what they really needed was someone to help out in the “hospital,” a rural health clinic, the only one in the district. We served more than 20 villages in two countries. I was lucky — I worked with dedicated people who cared more about the welfare of the community than anything else.

One of these things was helping with women who had “fallen off a bicycle.” For the first time in my life, I was living in a place where abortion was illegal. Continue reading

AIDS Denialism: Conspiracy Theories Can Kill

This scanning electron micrograph from 1989 reveals HIV particles (colored green) emerging from an infected cell. Image: CDC’s C. Goldsmith, P. Feorino, E.L. Palmer, W.R. McManus

We’ve all heard various conspiracy theories; we may or may not find them credible, and we might chalk up opposing viewpoints to simple differences in opinion. Sometimes, however, conspiratorial narratives are woven around matters of life and death — and in such cases, the spread of such ideas can influence dangerous changes in behavior and even government policy.

AIDS denialism is based on the idea that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) does not cause AIDS. Although the existence of HIV and its causal connection to AIDS has been thoroughly demonstrated by scientists, denialists either reject the existence of HIV altogether, or cast it as a harmless virus that doesn’t cause illness. Denialism often relies upon rhetorical strategies that are superficially convincing but intellectually hollow, including the cherry-picking of evidence, appeals to unreliable “experts,” and untestable claims. Denialists also might cite early AIDS research from the mid-1980s while ignoring more up-to-date findings and improved medical procedures. Such rhetoric creates a sense of legitimate debate in an area where there is none, and the only new evidence welcomed into the discourse is that which confirms preconceived notions.


Health decisions must be shaped by the best available evidence, and when denialism misinforms, one cannot make an informed decision.


If AIDS isn’t caused by HIV, what do denialists claim is behind the unique symptoms that characterize it? Some say that conditions such as malnutrition, or diseases that have been around for a long time, are simply being labeled as AIDS. Other denialists cast antiretroviral drugs as the cause, rather than the preventive treatment, of AIDS. Some claim that AIDS is caused by behavior, such as drug use or promiscuity — with some even saying that an accumulation of semen in the anus can cause AIDS. None of the claims is true — while AIDS can leave someone vulnerable to a wide variety of diseases, and while sharing IV equipment and engaging in unprotected sex can increase risk, there is only one cause: HIV. Continue reading

Book Club: The Origins of AIDS

The Origins of AIDS
By Jacques Pepin

Cambridge University Press, 2011

Most sexually transmitted diesases go back thousands of years. Gonorrhea, for example, was first described by a Greek physician in A.D. 150, and pubic lice have been evolving right along with us since before we became Homo sapiens. This might have been one reason why it was such a shock when a strange new virus came to our attention in the early 1980s. We soon discovered that it was transmitted sexually and through infected blood, but where did it come from?


We have intriguing evidence that HIV as we know it has been in existence since at least the 1930s.


HIV has been around since before the 1980s, though it remained unnoticed and unidentified by medical science. The earliest confirmed case of HIV was in 1959, the proof found in a sample of blood from the Belgian Congo, saved in a freezer for decades and later analyzed for the virus. Other early cases of HIV infection that have retrospectively been confirmed include that of a Norwegian sailor, who must have been infected while visiting African ports in the early 1960s. He, his wife, and his child (who was apparently congenitally infected) all died in 1976, and their tissues were tested 12 years later and found positive for HIV.

Jacques Pepin — a professor and microbiologist, not to be confused with the chef of the same name — does some serious detective work to find the most plausible explanation for HIV’s origins. While he doesn’t skimp on the science, the story of AIDS’ origins can’t be told without getting into the history of Europe’s colonization of Africa in the 20th century. This period, followed by the era of post-colonization, found many societies in upheaval. Urbanization, unemployment, and migration facilitated the spread of HIV in Africa during much of the 1900s, and once it left the continent it was able to hitch a ride from host to host, traveling the world. Continue reading