Journalist Jon Cohen spoke about methods to curb the stigma behind HIV/AIDS Tuesday evening in an event that was part of the Pulitzer Center’s collaboration with the Communication Studies Department. About 20 University of Michigan students and faculty attended the event, where Cohen especially covered efforts to end AIDS in Africa and the United States.
With funding from the Pulitzer Center, Cohen created a project of several stories that examine attempts across the United States and parts of Africa to reduce the spread of and eradicate HIV/AIDS. The talk is part of the initiative of the Pulitzer Center’s initiative to support journalists and bring them to the University to present their work.
In his presentation, Cohen, who works for Science, expressed his belief that mainstream media have largely forgotten about HIV. Cohen explained that this is because a fear of infectious disease largely drives the public, and media outlets serve the interests of the public. However, Cohen reminded the audience that there are 37 million people infected globally, with approximately 2 million people newly infected each year.
While Cohen supports the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS’s goal of reaching 90-90-90 — 90 percent of people who have the disease know they are infected, 90 percent of people seek health care, 90 percent of people are on antiretroviral drugs — he emphasized this goal has not been met. According to Cohen, just 11 million out of the 37 million people infected have all three goals achieved.
From Cohen’s travels around the world and observations of attempts to reduce the transmission of HIV, he noted there are some critical post-infection efforts that can be done to reduce the transmission.
Cohen cited having an advocate for individual patients to encourage them or count their pills are two of the ways Cohen believes can help end the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“Every place that has remarkable success has one individual who takes charge and says, ‘This is on me,’ ” Cohen said. “The other thing is self-criticism, is being able to look others squarely in the eye and say, ‘We’re failing here.’ ”
Cohen believes preventative measures are just as important as treating those living with the infection. Cohen emphasized what he believes to be the importance of at-risk men and women to receive and take pre-exposure prophylaxis drugs, which are used to prevent the contraction of disease in people who have not yet been exposed.
Business graduate student Julian Smyth echoed Cohen’s belief that more at-risk people should be taking PrEP drugs and shared his reasons for taking the drugs himself.
“I’m a single, gay man; I don’t think that I’m particularly at risk, but I think that’s one of the issues people have with PrEP,” Smyth said. “I think one of the other issues is that people who can afford to take it are people who are insured; it tends to be people who are more educated, who know about it. So we’re not the ones who are necessarily at the most risk.”
While Smyth may be correct about the types of people who have access to PrEP drugs, Cohen emphasized that HIV does not only affect those living in poverty.
“Yes, it is a disease of poverty, but it’s also a disease of wealth,” Cohen said.
Cohen explained while there are people infected from many different socioeconomic backgrounds, those who are marginalized in society — be it from race, gender, sexuality or social class — are the ones who face the most stigma.
Cohen mentioned a town in Zimbabwe where there is a monthly “drug day,” or a day where everyone in the village gets tested for HIV. In this system, community members know of one another’s HIV status, and there is a stigma for those who do not get tested.
According to Cohen, there should be more discussion surrounding HIV/AIDS and he hopes his research will contribute to an increased focus around the disease and those infected by it.
“I love giving voices to people,” Cohen said. “The scientific term for these groups of people is ‘marginalized’ — the real word is ‘hated.’ They’re hated in many parts of the world, and I like to show their humanity.”