UCD SU President Hopes To Reduce Stigma Of Living With HIV
UCD Students’ Union (SU) President, Conor Anderson has made public his HIV positive status, in an interview with Masc on Friday. The incoming president was diagnosed with the illness at the age of 21, in 2010, during his undergraduate degree in Los Angeles, California.
“It was the spring of my junior year, and my hair started falling out,” said Anderson. “I didn’t know why, so after a long time, I finally decided to go to the campus clinic. So, they tested me for everything because they didn’t know what was going on, and that is when they found it.”
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is an illness which targets the white blood cells, or CD4 T cells, and reduces the body’s ability to fight infections. If it goes untreated with Antiretrovirals (ARVs) or other medication, HIV could develop into Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), if the body’s CD4 T cells drop below a count of 200 or if the HIV positive person suffers a serious infection or cancer.
However, with access to proper medical care, HIV can be managed easily and is no longer considered a death sentence. While in the past a strict schedule of multiple tablets per day were required in order to maintain a healthy white blood cell count, the current medical landscape can see patients requiring as little as a single tablet per day.
A person who is HIV positive may have an undetectable viral load, which means that they have no detectable levels of the virus in their bloodstream. This does not mean that the person no longer has HIV, however, according to HIV Ireland,” for many people on long term HIV treatment, with an undetectable viral load, the risk of transmitting the virus to a partner(s) is zero.”
There are also medications available to the public which can prevent those who believe they are at risk from contracting the virus from doing so, such as Preexposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). According to the HSE, the use of PrEP can “reduce your risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90% and from injection drug use by more than 70%.”
Despite the major strides that have been made in the prevention and management of HIV, there is still a stigma against the illness, with many who have been diagnosed as HIV positive being alienated from friends and potential partners.
Anderson has been dealing with this stigma since his diagnosis ten years ago. He admitted that he did not react well to the news at first, however now that he is sober, he is able to go about his day to day life as normal.
“The hardest part of dealing with this disease is the social stigma,” said Anderson. “It has changed due to concerted effort on the part of groups like Act Up [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power] and Against.”
“At the time I was not sober, so I was drinking very heavily, and I started drinking even more heavily, and it was just a really bad time,” said Anderson. “I didn’t really deal with it for years. I was also closeted, I hadn’t come out as gay, so I was just medicating with alcohol.”
“I still remember when I first moved to Dublin I went to an AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] at St John of God, and I was talking and it somehow came out ‘oh yeah, I’m gay,’ and this older Irish woman sort of leaned in and was like, ‘Oh, that’s okay here’,” joked Anderson.
For Anderson, one of the biggest problems relating to the stigma around the disease is in his relationships with sexual partners. He acknowledged that he is often shunned from potential partners after he discloses his status, however he stated that if they are not able to deal with his status then they are not the type of person he wants to date.
“It is important to talk about,” said Anderson. “[Being HIV positive], obviously I am a member of a class of people who are considered very sexually undesirable. And when that is a message that is beaten into you it takes its toll.”
“You are told you are not worthy as a partner, you are not worthy for somebody to have sex with, let alone date you, let alone marry you,” said Anderson. “But it has been reduced, and it has reduced because of PrEP and because of U=U [Undetectable equals Untransmittable].”
Since his diagnosis, Anderson has seen a positive change towards reducing the stigma of HIV and believes that it is important for people that are in the public domain that are HIV positive to be open about their status, in order to continue to reduce the stigma. He wanted to make his status public to give others that might look up to him in his position the face that he never saw when he was first diagnosed.
“Because I am in a role particularly focused on younger people… I figured that it is additionally incumbent upon me to be public about it [HIV status],” said Anderson. “I was 21 years old when I was diagnosed, so I was doing my undergrad when it happened, and I did not know another HIV positive person for five years.”
“There were very few HIV positive people that I knew of in the public sphere, who were relatable to me,” added Anderson. “I know Magic Johnson, Eazy E and Freddie Mercury and a lot of [the people in the public sphere] also turned out to be dead.”
Anderson wants to give young people a positive image of someone that is HIV positive rather than the “morbid and macabre” images of people who are “skeletons” that is still the prevailing image of HIV positive people.
While HIV can cause medical complications, Anderson has not had any negative medical issues since his diagnosis and is not currently considered immunocompromised. This means that he has not had to shield or cocoon during the Covid-19 pandemic; he has faced the pandemic in the same manner as the rest of the public.
“It is not that big a deal, it is not a big deal,” said Anderson on HIV. “It is a completely manageable chronic illness… because you just have to remember, it is like taking a vitamin every day.”
Anderson added that he is free to talk to any UCD student that has recently been diagnosed HIV positive if they would like to talk through it. “It will be okay,” he said.
If you have recently been diagnosed as HIV positive and require any type of assistance, HIV Ireland are available for support:
Stephen Kisbey-Green – Co-Editor