I must have first watched the film Gia, an HBO biographical film about ill-fated model Gia Marie Carangi at the age of 19 or 20. The story was somewhat simple in format: small town girl finds fame as a model, starts leading a life of excess, gets HIV from sharing a needle and dies.
However, what will never leave me is the harrowing way in which she passes away in the film; that hospital scene is always going to be imprinted somewhere in the back of my mind. This image and many others like it were what defined my understanding of what it meant to have AIDS. It was only when I started researching more and more for an article that I wrote a while back that I realised that while this may have been a common scenario in the 80s, it is far from reality today. But how many people know this?
In Malta, we currently find ourselves in something of a pitiable situation. With sex still being something of a taboo subject and sex education scant if not non-existent, people are less aware than they should be about where the local scene stands when it comes to HIV.
According to statistics, there are currently 450 people in Malta who are living with the virus. While most of the rest of Europe has seen a decrease in HIV numbers, in 2017, our rates of HIV diagnoses increased by 50 per cent.
This increase has brought neither a change in the outdated medication regimen that those living with HIV in Malta are forced to take, nor has it seen an increase in support groups. What’s more, the stigma attached to the disease has rendered many scared, silent and thus, invisible.
While the rest of Europe switched to the one-pill-a-day method of daily medication, those living with HIV in Malta have to take three pills in the morning and three in the evening at fixed times. These pills have many more side effects than one pill a day and what’s more, they aren’t the kind of side effects that one in a million get, but almost everyone who takes them will experience nausea, diarrhoea and a plethora of other things at some point or another. I’ve actually interviewed someone who gets it in waves which means he would be fine for a few weeks and then hit by the side effects again a few weeks later.
On top of all this, there is very little emotional support offered for both people living with HIV as well as their friends and families. These things need to change sooner rather than later.
While the stigma attached to this disease remains, many people will continue to remain unseen and unheard. We can no longer ignore what is happening in our own backyard and judge and pontificate: this will serve no one. It’s time that we banded together and demanded more for our communities and our country.
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