The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

UTRGV School of Medicine

“AIDS can destroy a family if you let it, but luckily for my sister and me, Mom taught us to keep going. Don't give up, be proud of who you are, and never feel sorry for yourself.”

– Ryan White, 1988, Testimony before President’s Commission on AIDS
Born: Dec. 6, 1971 – Died (AIDS): April 8, 1990

Thanksgiving is a week away and the holidays are nipping at your nose. Between one and the other is World AIDS Day.

The very first day of commemoration was in 1988. The year prior, the first AIDS Quilt had been displayed on the National Mall. It contained 1,920 panels bearing the names of people who had died of AIDS.

Today, the Quilt (no longer shown in its entirety) has more than 48,000 panels representing the tragic loss of life to HIV/AIDS.

Some of you may think: “What is he talking about?” “Who is Ryan White?” “Why is this of any importance to me?”

For those who were in medicine in the 1980s, this name and these images are all too familiar. It is important today because the story of AIDS is the story of inequities and discrimination in the United States of America. Dr. Paul Farmer said it best: “What people with AIDS share are not personal or psychological attributes. They do not share culture or language or a certain racial identity. They do not share sexual preference or an absolute income bracket. What they share is a social position – the bottom rung of the ladder in society.”

That certainly still rings true today.

What is different today, though, is that as a nation, we have a strategy – not a federal strategy, but a national strategy. Through HIV, we now have a better focus on violence, gender-related health disparities, and a renewed emphasis on addictions and mental health care. And to Ryan-White’s message, we have a strategy on elimination of stigma and discrimination in order to diminish barriers to HIV testing, AIDS prevention and care.

Still, we have to focus on disproportionately affected populations (gay, bisexual, and men who have sex with men of all races and ethnicities, black women and men, Latino men and women, injection drug users, youths 13 to 24 years of age, and transgender women).

One group you may not readily think of is people in the southern United States. That’s right: We in the Rio Grande Valley live in a high-risk area. In the southern USA, more people live in denial and are unwilling to know their serostatus – meaning, whether they have HIV/AIDS or not.

Why is this important? The 25 percent of the high-risk population that is not aware of their HIV status accounts for 54 percent of the new HIV infections. Moreover, people who do not know their HIV status do not take advantage of treatment that can make them live healthier and longer. More importantly, they will transmit HIV to others.

Knowing your serostatus is key in not infecting others and getting lifesaving treatment. Treatment impacts prevention, as well, by decreasing viral load and lowering the chances of transmission. Which is why designing appropriate testing and designing new and improved treatment strategies for each population gets us to the 2015 theme of World AIDS Day: Getting to zero: Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths.

In order to get there, we need to start by knowing our own HIV status and, if positive, learning the appropriate treatment to improve health and survival.

So, for my part, I will get tested on Dec. 1, 2015. For years, we have been testing for HIV using blood tests. It's something people have become accustomed to. But what if you don't like getting blood tests? What if you really hate getting stuck with a needle? Well, truthfully, I am not one of those people. But if you are, there is no need to fear – you can have your saliva tested for HIV. 

Be healthy, and stay healthy, by learning about HIV/AIDS. Find out if you have HIV/AIDS. And protect yourself from HIV/AIDS.

If you are not sure about what you should do, the CDC promotes awareness – check it out and know your status: https://positivespin.hiv.gov/stage/know-your-status