Even though it’s just three letters, HIV carries a stigma that it hasn’t been able to shake since the 80’s. When the world first became aware of HIV and AIDS, a positive diagnosis was a death sentence. There was no cure, no treatment – nothing. Public perception of the virus wasn’t helped by a “Grim Reaper’ ad campaign, where a cloaked reaper bowled down men, women and children in a foggy bowling alley, insinuating the virus was coming for everyone and contracting it would be fatal. Forty years later, the false misconceptions attached to HIV carry a weightier sentence than the virus itself. It is a stigma borne of ignorance; a stigma which is slowly reappearing as the COVID-19 virus grips Australia.
David Polson’s voice doesn’t indicate years of hateful discrimination and painful drug trails. No tremors betray the clarity in which he speaks of his experiences. Sheer optimism is evident in his words when he speaks of his belief that there will be a time when there is no longer a negative stigma surrounding HIV.
He has the answer – so simple, but beautiful in its clarity. ‘Put a human face to it’, he says. ‘We can look at numbers and figures all day, but when people see a person who is going through it, they’re more inclined to listen’.
We’re talking today about his appearance on ABC’s You Can’t Ask That, where blatantly blunt questions are sent in anonymously for eight HIV positive individuals to answer.
When he was first diagnosed in 1984, David described it as falling down a deep, black, bottomless pit. The prognosis in those times meant impending, unavoidable death. David thought his diagnosis meant the end of his journey but in reality, it was merely the beginning.
He is – and always has been – open about his experiences suffering through 28 drug trials. The taste of every medication he was put on lingers in his mouth, and the worst have left him partially deaf, and with an incurable brain disease which will eventually kill him.
‘They were all intense, they were all vile, they were all hideous’, he says of the trials. ‘There were side effects upon side effects – nausea, swelling, terrible headaches, vomiting after every single meal, weight gain – the list is endless’.
Sitting next to David on the show was 37-year-old cruise ship singer Andy. When Andy was diagnosed in 2004, his doctor told him no-one in this day and age died from AIDS and he only needed to take two pills per day – a shocking contrast to David’s daily 18. During the show, Andy turned to David and thanked him. ‘Me being alive is wholly because of people like you doing the trials. And I’m forever grateful.’
What does it feel like, for someone to thank you for their lives? To recognise the years of pain, sickness and exhaustion weren’t for nothing?
‘It made my day, it made my year’, says David, ‘It was a very, very special moment for me. No one has ever said that to me before, and it made all that awful stuff worthwhile’.
As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches across our country, we are being encouraged to protect our vulnerable. The new precautions aren’t new to David – since the day he was diagnosed, he’s been stringent with his hygiene and taking his medications. ‘Obviously, I am isolated and I’m being careful,
but I’ve always had to take greater care of myself. The hardest part is the emotional and mental part – not being able to connect with people on a daily basis’.
Is he afraid of contracting COVID-19, as the pandemic and its accompanying panic snakes throughout Sydney? ‘This may sound terribly frivolous, but AIDS didn’t get me and I don’t think COVID-19 will either’ he laughs.
What he’s more concerned about is the startlingly familiar ways society is responding to those affected. With HIV, the prejudice was immediate and vile. The fear of coronavirus seems to carry the same effect – everyone is looking for someone to blame, and in this instance, it was China. ‘I wasn’t on the receiving end of this discrimination, but there is a distinct resemblance’, says David. ‘It’s alarming’.
‘HIV consumed my life for quite a period of time; fighting it and being determined to survive it. But it didn’t consume me and I’m not letting COVID-19 consume me either.’
Unlike COVID-19, there is a solution for those with HIV. But even though there are now effective treatments that reduce the virus load to the point of undetectability, the stigma still exists due to widespread ignorance. Very few people know the main fact of HIV: undetectable means untransmissible.
This stigma is the reason people aren’t coming forwards to be tested, which means people who are HIV positive may not know they are and may pass it on. It’s a vicious cycle that can only be ended with education and advocacy, and David is more than ready to step up to the plate.
‘People don’t want to do the research themselves, they need programs like ‘You Can’t Ask That’ to put the information in front of them, so they’ll take notice of it and say “oh, okay”’, says David. ‘After appearing on the show, I had so many people I didn’t know reaching out to me, and people stopping me on the street to shake my hand. It was amazing.’
‘My vision for HIV – as odd as it sounds – is for it to be like cancer. Just another disease that people have that can be treated. We need people to be able to live their lives normally and talk about their diagnosis openly.
‘That’s what we’re asking for.’