Ashleigh Atwell

Ashleigh Atwell: Ignorance still abounds when it comes to HIV/AIDS

About a month ago, what I thought was a joke turned into an educational session. I was perusing one of several Facebook groups that clog my timeline. A member posted a screenshot of Twitter user @bakedalaska complaining about June’s, a Canadian restaurant that only employs HIV-positive people. “Canada has a new restaurant staffed entirely by HIV+ chefs to ‘smash stigma,’” he wrote. “You’re a bigot if you don’t want to catch AIDS from your food.” I rolled my eyes and went to the comment section to see who had a similar reaction. Typically, when someone is willfully ignorant and bigoted, they’re mocked and jokes fly.

Instead, it was a hot mess and I had to become an educator. One group member who claimed to work in the food industry didn’t see why the tweet was wrong. He claimed to be worried about chefs possibly contaminating food or infecting people on purpose because he’s met “unsavory people” in kitchens.

Sadly, he wasn’t the only one. Another person repeated the blood in food theory. A third swore she knew how HIV/AIDS was transmitted but said she wouldn’t eat at June’s because of “bad apples.” I was flabbergasted. In an era where we have commemorations, ad campaigns and countless organizations, there are still adults that don’t know the most basic facts about HIV/AIDS.

Furthermore, HIV-positive people were being viewed as predatory, and that stigma has consequences. Michael Johnson was sentenced to 30 years in prison for allegedly infecting two partners and exposing four more people to the virus. According to media reports, this conviction was handed down despite the prosecution’s inability to prove Johnson was the person responsible for the transmission.

More than 30 states have HIV criminalization laws. People who disclose also risk being reported to the authorities, being beaten or killed. Cicely Bolden was killed by her boyfriend, Larry Dunn, when she disclosed after they had sex. According to CBS News, Dunn told the police “she killed me, so I killed her.”

Although Google places a wealth of information at our fingertips, it is clear that people are still largely uneducated about HIV/AIDS. The virus used to be a death sentence, but medical advancements have allowed HIV-positive people to live long and healthy lives. Sadly, there is still shame attached to HIV/AIDS. Medical advancements don’t mean much if people don’t even want to get tested because they’re scared of being labeled or judged.

Atlanta has been likened to a third-world country, and a majority of diagnoses come from the South. Those facts might be shocking until you remember that abstinence-only education is prevalent in our schools. Consequently, those kids grow up thinking it’s possible to “catch AIDS” from food.

As a society, especially here in the South, there has to be a cultural change. We shouldn’t just talk about HIV/AIDS on World AIDS Day or when there’s a chance to wear red or use a Snapchat filter. We can’t afford to go backward.