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December 1st was World AIDS Day, a day of remembrance for those who passed from HIV/AIDS.

The epidemic we are currently in often reminds us of the ones we previously experienced. At least 36.3 million people have died as a result of complications from HIV/AIDS. In 1995 alone, cases of AIDS exceeded over one-half million; AIDS had become the leading cause of death among Americans ages 25 to 44.

Lack of conversation and failed attempts at sex education have convinced us that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is over when that is far from the truth.

Roughly 37.7 million people live with the virus worldwide and 680,000 people died from complications in 2020.

HIV/AIDS is one of the most stigmatized diseases in healthcare.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the virus was severely understudied and misunderstood.

Kathy Little graduated from nursing school at the start of the epidemic and worked in critical care and trauma at several hospitals. She treated many patients with HIV and AIDS.

“In the beginning, nobody knew what it was and we were afraid to touch people.”

Little drew comparisons from the HIV/AIDS epidemic to the Covid epidemic.

Similar to Covid, “The HIV attacks your immune system and that’s why most people would die of a pneumonia,” she said.

As there are long-term effects of HIV, Little argued that the same can be applied to those recovering from Covid-19 – with some survivors suffering from coagulopathy to what she described as “Covid-Brain.”

Treatment during the 80s and early 90s, when Little saw the most cases, was based on trial-and-error. It wasn’t until 1987 that the first drug to treat HIV/AIDS, zidovudine, or AZT, was approved by the FDA. However, treatment approaches had a multitude of side effects and did not always appear successful.

“We did everything medically possible for them. But, we all felt at that time that it was kind of hopeless because it was,” she said. “I was very caring and things like that, but I was also nervous that I’d be ok.”

Frances Lamorgese became a nurse in 1997. While working in medical/surgical orthopedics in New York’s Beth Israel hospital, she treated some patients with HIV/AIDS.

“We were especially careful with HIV patients because we still weren’t very sure how we could get it,” Lamorgese said. “Especially since we would be giving injections because you can easily get stuck with a needle after giving an injection if you’re not careful. And, some of my co-workers did.”

According to Lamorgese, Medical personnel that got pricked by a needle administered on someone with HIV or AIDS were able to get tested after receiving consent from the patient. Follow-up tests were required and in some cases, medication was administered.

Both Little and Lamorgese emphasized that they took precautionary measures while treating patients with the virus. Gloves and hand-washing were always administered. Little went as far as stating that the virus changed sanitary approaches to medical care for the better.

“Now, all the time we, minimal, we wear gloves when we do patient care on everybody now. But, back then we didn’t. We changed dressings without gloves. And, as things progressed, hygiene and everything got more prevalent.”

As the 90s progressed, Lamorgese began to see the demographic of patients with HIV or AIDS expanding. She began to see more BIPOC women compared to white, gay men.

As of 2019, Black individuals account for 42.1% of those with HIV. Around one in four women in the United States are living with HIV/AIDS. According to The Human Rights Campaign, Transgender women are 49% more likely to contract HIV compared to the general population. Rates of transmission for trans men are higher as well.

When discussing mortality rates, Lamorgese disclosed that she has never seen any of her patients die from HIV or AIDS.

“I’ve seen a lot of people pass,” Little said. “Death is not painful at all. It’s the disease that’s painful.”

Little explained that for patients the most depressing aspect of passing from HIV/AIDS-related complications was not being able to see their family.

“And, then families, when they found out that their daughter or son, usually had AIDS, they wouldn’t come visit them. It was like they had the black plague,” she said. “It was like the people who lived low-lives got AIDS. If you had AIDS, it was socially unacceptable, so to speak… It was a disease, they didn’t do anything wrong.”

Homophobia and transphobia act as a hindrance in ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Little argues that in the medical field, it is imperative to challenge prejudice.

She stated, “Once you took care of the person, you realized that they were just a person and they were nice, and they were scared, and they were sick, and they didn’t feel good, and you just took care of them.”

There is still much work to do in the medical field surrounding treatment for those with HIV or AIDS.

What does Little think can help combat the problem? Empathy.

“I find now with some of the younger people going into medicine, there’s not that love and compassion… We have to realize that we’re the same human race. We’re all human and we have to have compassion and kindness in everyone.”

To learn more about HIV/AIDS, feel free to visit https://www.plannedparenthood.org. To learn more about the history of World AIDS Day visit https://www.unaids.org.

Works Cited

“About.” World AIDS Day, 2021 National AIDS Trust, 30 Nov. 2021, https://www.worldaidsday.org/about/.

“Antiretroviral Drug Discovery and Development.” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 26 Nov. 2018, https://www.niaid.nih.gov/diseases-conditions/antiretroviral-drug-development.

Childress, Sarah. “Why Some with HIV Still Can’t Get Treatment.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 11 July 2012, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/why-some-with-hiv-still-cant-get-treatment/.

Content Source: HIV.govDate last updated: June 02, 2021. “U.S. Statistics.” HIV.gov, Minority HIV/AIDS Fund, 2 June 2021, https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/data-and-trends/statistics.

Content Source: HIV.govDate last updated: May 17, 2021. “Aging with HIV.” HIV.gov, Minority HIV/AIDS Fund, 13 Sept. 2021, https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/living-well-with-hiv/taking-care-of-yourself/aging-with-hiv#:~:text=Health%20Issues%20and%20Aging%20with%20HIV&text=In%20addition%2C%20while%20effective%20HIV,%2C%20renal%20disease%2C%20and%20cancer.

D’Andrea, Gabriele et al. “AZT: an old drug with new perspectives.” Current clinical pharmacology vol. 3,1 (2008): 20-37. doi:10.2174/157488408783329913

“HIV/AIDS.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, July 2021, https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/themes/hiv-aids.

“HIV/AIDS: Snapshots of an Epidemic.” AmfAR, AmfAR, https://www.amfar.org/thirty-years-of-hiv/aids-snapshots-of-an-epidemic/.

“Homophobia and HIV.” Avert, Avert, 10 Oct. 2019, https://www.avert.org/professionals/hiv-social-issues/homophobia.

Kalidasan, V., and Kumitaa Theva Das. “Lessons Learned From Failures and Success Stories of HIV Breakthroughs: Are We Getting Closer to an HIV Cure?” Edited by Hirofumi Akari. Front. Microbiol., 31 Jan. 2021, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2020.00046/full. Accessed 5 Dec. 2021.

NBC Chicago. “Beyond Brain Fog: Neurologist Details Long-Lasting Symptoms Post-COVID.” NBC Chicago, NBCUniversal Media, 1 Dec. 2021, https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/coronavirus/beyond-brain-fog-neurologist-details-long-lasting-symptoms-post-covid/2697309/.

Sartorius, Norman. Stigmatized Illnesses and Health Care, vol. 48, no. 3, June 2007, pp. 396–397., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2080544/. Accessed 5 Dec. 2021.

“Statistics: Women and HIV/AIDS.” AmfAR, AmfAR, May 2021, https://www.amfar.org/about-hiv-and-aids/facts-and-stats/statistics–women-and-hiv-aids/.

“Transgender People and HIV: What We Know.” HRC, The Human Rights Campaign , https://www.hrc.org/resources/transgender-people-and-hiv-what-we-know.

vol. 7, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta , Georgia, 1995, pp. 1–38, HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report 1995, https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/pdf/library/reports/surveillance/cdc-hiv-surveillance-report-1995-vol-7-2.pdf. Accessed 5 Dec. 2021. “Why the HIV Epidemic Is Not Over.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/news-room/spotlight/why-the-hiv-epidemic-is-not-over.

Tara is a New York-based Journalist studying at The Eugene Lang College of The New School. She has a passion for unique storytelling and mental health-based journalism. Aside from writing, Tara has a passion for theater and music. See more of Tara's work on taralamorgese.wixsite.com/website!
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