HIV still a threat

Two drops of blood and 15 minutes was all it took to get tested for HIV.

Waiting for the results of the HIV test offered by a local nonprofit, I prayed for those who have the virus. I imagined how I might feel if I were among them.

“I encourage everyone to be tested, even if they’re not a part of a high-risk group,” said Cleve Jones, founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which has patches remembering tens of thousands of people who have died of the disease.

“I want heterosexual, monogamous people to know just what it feels like to wait for that test result,” Jones told PBS in the same interview. “I want you to go out and get an HIV test, and I want you to tell your family and your friends that you’re going to get that test.”

More than 30 million people live with HIV/AIDS worldwide, according to Avert, a United Kingdom-based education and treatment organization. More than 1.1 million are in the U.S., but nearly one in five infected people don’t know they have the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates there are 50,000 new infections annually.

“It’s kind of off the radar” that HIV/ AIDS is still affecting many in the U.S., said Bill Luginbuhl, a member of Chicago Community Mennonite Church, who works at a clinic serving hundreds of HIV-positive people, whether or not they have insurance. “It’s still happening” that people are getting diagnosed, he said. Perhaps it’s because of more testing or of less prevention, or both.

What is more certain is that for those living in poverty, options for treatment are becoming fewer as clinics close or downsize, Luginbuhl said.

And it is among the poor where the virus is taking some of its heaviest tolls. In some of the lowest-income neighborhoods of Washington, as many as one in eight women have HIV. Three percent of people live with HIV/AIDS, placing the District of Columbia among the cities globally most affected by the virus, the BBC reported during the 2012 International AIDS Conference there. In D.C. and nationally, African-Americans are the hardest hit.

Facing such realities, it’s difficult sometimes to believe the virus is the mindless organism that it is. It’s difficult when we see how it preys upon the poor, the incarcerated, those struggling with addiction, those rejected because of their sexuality, those who have sex with multiple partners as a way to survive. It’s difficult when we see how it exploits shame and fear, creating divisions between those infected or at risk, and those who imagine they could never be.

Our faith communities should be gifted at breaking down dividing walls — especially when we are urgently needed in the work of reducing new infections, including through talking about HIV and promoting testing for it, in the U.S. as well as globally.

Waiting for the results of the HIV test offered by a local nonprofit, I prayed for those who have the virus. I imagined how I might feel if I were among them.

I remembered one of my childhood neighbors. I had loved to follow Benn around while he worked in his garden, until he became too ill. I saw him one day when returning from school and waved. My classmates asked, “Who’s that old man?” Though in his late 30s, he did, indeed, look decrepit. He died months later of AIDS-related complications.

Waiting, I prayed for a world where no one would be made old while still young, where no one would leave her children orphaned. A world where everyone would hear that no HIV was found in their bodies.

Until we live in that world, I pray God would give each of us a fresh infusion of compassion, bringing people together to work for better prevention and care until we overcome this terrible disease.