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Opinion: Two Different Ways of Tackling a Pandemic, the case of HIV and COVID-19

The start of clinical trials of the vaccine against the Human Immunodeficiency Virus thanks to the advances made by the Coronavirus is evidence of forty years of delay.

Syringe with tape and a condom

What is known and is not a secret to anyone is that HIV has been directly associated with the LGBTIQ + community and has generated enormous stigmatization around those who suffer from the disease. Photo: LatinAmerican Post

LatinAmerican Post | Vanesa López Romero

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Leer en español: Opinión: dos maneras distintas de abordar una pandemia, el caso del VIH y de la COVID-19

The Coronavirus pandemic put scientists and doctors around the world between a rock and a hard place. As a result, a vaccine was created in a matter of months and was released just over a year after the first case of COVID-19 occurred. According to Our World in Data, 27.1% of the world's population has already been vaccinated. Although the variants that have emerged from the virus and the lack of vaccines in poor countries put the end of the pandemic on stand by, we are getting closer to what we have been waiting for: a return to normal life.

One of the benefits that the health emergency brought with it was the creation of messenger RNA vaccines , which are being used to counteract the Coronavirus, and aim to protect from infectious diseases by teaching the cells of those who are vaccinated to produce a protein that triggers an immune response in the body. As a consequence, vaccinated people are protected from serious consequences if they become infected .

This new technology is currently being used to create a vaccine against HIV / AIDS , a sexually transmitted virus that has been around the world since 1981, the year in which the first symptoms of the disease appeared. Today, forty years later, it is estimated that approximately 78 million people have been infected, 42.2 million have died from the disease and the number of people affected by this other pandemic is not known exactly. The biotechnology company Moderna has confirmed that testing in humans would begin this week. The news has gone around the world generating hope for all the victims that this virus has claimed during the last four decades.

Also read: Did you Know that you Could be Immune to COVID-19 Without a Vaccine? Here We Tell you Why

Stigma kills

What is known and is not a secret to anyone is that HIV has been directly associated with the LGBTIQ + community and has generated enormous stigmatization around those who suffer from the disease. In fact, in its early days, the virus was named "purple cancer" and "GRID" (gay-related immune deficiency), as if it were a disease that only homosexual people could have. And while the disease has mostly affected people belonging to the LGBTIQ + community, especially gay men and transgender people , this is not because this population group is biologically different from the heterosexuals. Behind this is the pressure of a markedly conservative and puritanical society, in which, if sex outside of marriage is a scandal, sexual relations between people of the same sex is an abomination.

Discrimination against people with diverse identities and sexual orientations led to misinformation, poverty, and little (or no) access to education and health services. Consequently, this has left forty years of victims, not only homosexuals, but also heterosexuals and the disability of a disease from which any human being could suffer regardless of their sexuality.

Also read: Interview: How can I support my relative who came out?

Why is one pandemic more valid than another?

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first pandemic we see in the modern era. In the last century we have seen the smallpox pandemic (which until recently was eradicated), the Spanish flu, the Asian flu, HIV, the Ebola virus, and the AH1N1 flu . However, what makes the Coronavirus so relevant is that, although its mortality rate is not that high compared to other infectious diseases, its contagion rate is much higher. The speed with which the infection reached most of the world set off alarms and consequently we found a vaccine, its distribution and application within a year and a half.

Of course, technological, scientific and medical advance is what mostly allowed the COVID-19 pandemic to be addressed in the way it has been done in pharmaceutical terms, but it also makes it clear that our society is little empathic and only pays attention to a health emergency that can affect those who are important, those who belong to a higher circle in the social hierarchy.

It occurs to me that if the COVID-19 virus had been left alone in Asia, the stigmatization would be much bigger than what already is. And it is that (apparently) any reason is an excuse to validate hatred towards what is different, to validate, for example, homophobia and racism .

The worst part of all this is that the promise of an HIV vaccine is not the promise of empathy with those who suffer from this disease. There is still a long way to go, a path that has been made over forty years of misinformation, stigmatization, deaths and lives that are seen as invalid.