Holding HIV Down

What does it mean to suppress something? Like so much of our language, the word itself comes from Latin: suppressus, from supprimere. It meant to hold down—to push under. The word sounds violent and malicious, like leaning your weight upon someone’s neck as you drown them in a bathtub. Now, as far as modern medical terminology is considered, to suppress something is to inhibit the activity of something inside the body. The word has been sanitized in a sense, much like another word: virus. In scientific literature, the definition you will get for a virus would be something like a microscopic particle capable of producing disease and containing a segment of RNA or DNA. An Ancient Roman would have been a tad more concise. To him a virus meant simply poison. A virus was slime; an oozing liquid gob that corrupts everything it touches.

With regards to HIV treatment, science will give you a modern account of what goes on through the process of viral suppression. A patient, depending a number of different factors ranging from current CD4 cell count and viral load to his past medication history, will be placed on a treatment regimen of one or more (usually more) medications that are designed to disrupt the manufacturing of HIV cells in the body and to inhibit the growth and subsistence of existing cells to reduce the patient’s viral load to undetectable levels. At that point the patient is “virally suppressed” and his/her immune system should be right as rain. There is a litany of technical terminology and biological mechanisms involved in this process that a) I don’t fully understand and b) don’t care to bore you with. What I do know is that the explanation provided above is a 2-dimensional description of a 3-dimensional experience.

A poisonous gob of HIV slime

There is no emotion allowed in biology. Scientists aren’t allowed to anthropomorphize these tiny non-organisms we call HIV. But to me, and to many others, disease is not an objective matter. What we fight is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a virus. It is slime. HIV is sludge that seeps into the bodies of able-bodied people and eats away at them from the inside. I don’t want to calmly coax HIV out of hiding; I want to hunt it. Armed not with bows and arrows or M-16s, but with OraQuick HIV tests and social workers, we will suck the stolen lifeblood from HIV. And since we are not capable of killing it—yet—we need to keep our hands on it’s throat with vigilance and fervor. We must suppress it as best we can.

The we I speak of is not simply HIV+ men and women and HIV care providers. It is every last one of us. And it’s not necessarily money or direct care that we ask for, but passion. We need passion and we need awareness and we need education. Today’s young men and women weren’t there during the eighties. We didn’t see our friends and family get picked off one by one by a disease so powerful that the question asked of doctors was not am I going to die, but when will I die? The Magic Johnson’s of the world have bred in some of us a false sense of security. We look at courageous men and women who survived the rigors of HIV and look for all the world today to be healthy as ever. People think, “HIV’s nothing…you just take a pill and you’re good,” not knowing the immense sacrifices the HIV community has made and continues to make on a daily basis. For all of the trumpeting about antiretroviral medications and viral suppression, the numbers have not wavered. We are still getting infected at the same rate we have for years now and we are still dying.

The point of this blog—Virally Suppressed—is to be as adherent in discourse as HIV+ men and women are in their own treatment. Do not put away your red ribbons! There is no place for complacency and apathy with a disease this malicious and unwavering in its tyranny. All we ask is your attention and your opinions. We need you to become invested in fighting HIV in whatever way you can. If the most you can muster is bringing up HIV during a college course or getting yourself tested once every six months, then you’ve done your part. Awareness is the only way to destroy stigma and destroying stigma is the best way to get people into care. Your actions can have a ripple effect that saves someone’s life and I’m not being hyperbolic. Send your friend a link to this blog. Tell your partner that if he or she ever wants to get in your pants again they better use a condom. Anything and everything helps because when you’re trying to suppress a virus like HIV, you need all of the hands that you can get.

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