With World AIDS Day approaching Dec. 1, the University of Michigan held a panel Thursday evening to discuss the current status of HIV and AIDS. The panel featured a combination of medical experts and individuals living with HIV or AIDS, and discussed current HIV/AIDS treatment methods, helping prevent HIV and the experience of living with HIV.

Dr. Gary Harper, a professor in the School of Public Health and one of the panelists, talked about his experience studying HIV over time. He said he felt treatment has improved immensely, but some things, like the stigma the disease carries, have not changed as much as he had hoped it would.

“I’ve been doing HIV work since 1985, and I think there has been a decrease in attention to HIV,” Harper said. “I was just excited that we’re continuing to draw attention to this very critical and important issue. I think in some areas there’s been huge changes, in other areas not. We’ve seen huge changes in terms of treatment. When I was doing work in 1985, especially my early years as a psychologist, we were helping people die. And now we don’t see that many people dying from it. I think that although we’ve seen decreases in stigma, we see some areas where people are resistant to change, and so there’s a great deal of stigma, and just a lack of knowledge and understanding.”

Harper continued, saying he wanted citizens and University students to understand that HIV is still a pressing issue. He said he thinks if people help fight against ignorance, they can help eliminate the negative stereotypes associated with HIV.

“I want them to know that HIV is still an issue in this country, and worldwide, and that stigma and lack of information, lack of understanding and ignorance is what’s keeping it perpetuated,” Harper said. “Even though it’s only impacting certain communities and populations, we all need to be part of the solution. We all need to work on reducing stigma, we all need to work on increasing access in our own ways so people can get the care they need.”

One of the other speakers was Marco Wade, a Michigan resident who has been living with AIDS for many years. Wade spoke about how he felt when he learned he had AIDS. Wade said while he has come to terms with it today, it was hard to cope with at first, especially psychologically.

“For me, it’s not really been that big of a deal,” Wade said. “I look at it — it is what it is, I can’t change it. Part of that is a good group of friends. Mental health though, I’m glad you brought that up. I do go to a therapist. I would not be here today if I hadn’t. When I first found out, I did get really depressed. It was devastating, it was like, ‘How did I get this?’ I was with somebody I’d been with for 8 years, what the hell.”

LSA senior Catherine Szkop, one of a handful of students who attended the panel, said she had never met somebody with AIDS, so coming to the panel was an eye-opening experience that provided more information about the emotional side of the disease.

“I’ve never learned about the actual human perspective and the human experience of having the disease, so I did learn about that today from two different individuals,” Szkop said. “I also didn’t know much about the policies, like the law involving HIV, so I learned about that as well.”

Szkop also talked about ways she felt she could help, even without a direct link to the community. She said she felt being knowledgeable was invaluable, and would help her combat ignorance about AIDS, even just in casual conversations.

“I don’t have a specific connection to helping people in this community,” Szkop said. “My biggest thing is always knowledge is power, so like me understanding this can lead to ways of advocating for it, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to like lobby for it in the government or anything. But that means that in my own circles, if somebody says something incorrect, I can be like, ‘Actually, I learned this.’”

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