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HIV: enough scaremongering!

Hon. Edwin Vassallo's 'apology' is short sighted and does not meet what is expected from him as a Member of Parliament.

Last week, on his personal profile, Hon. Vassallo shared a fake news post warning that someone has actually taken the time and pain to inject HIV in bananas. It is therefore suggested that before eating any bananas we should perform an autopsy on them, and if after a thorough examination -after peeling of course- we notice some red marks, bin the banana for it has been infected with HIV. 

Righty-ho, this same post has been doing the rounds for a number of years now. It has also been verified as fake news for equally the same number of years. Hon. Vassallo, however, failed to check whether this very dodgy piece of information is accurate or not. In his 'apology', he writes that his only intention in sharing this "'information'" was so that no harm comes to anyone. Little does he know that his omission in verifying the post has actually caused more harm to vulnerable members of the population, their families and society at large.

In a country, where sexual health education is primate, discussions on reproductive rights are a taboo and GU clinic stretched beyond its means, any misinformation in the media is not only frowned upon but very much unbecoming especially when it's coming from a member of the House. Instead of making amends to his post by issuing a statement on what he has since done to improve his knowledge of HIV and sexual health and share that same knowledge with his Facebook followers, Hon. Vassallo made himself the victim by arguing that he was ridiculed because of his conservative politics and not because audience members are smarter than he is.

Hon. Vassallo, the story was not blown out of proportion. The sharing of fake news by Members of Parliament is a deplorable act which automatically raises red flags. Members of Parliament are expected, and thought to be, of high esteem, with a rational thinking capacity to be able to identify when news is fake or not. But if they err and fail for the trap of click baiting, a suitable apology is expected and, in this case, demanded. Can you imagine the even worse backlash you would have received if you posted that same information in your capacity as a member of the House of Commons where last November, the Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle announced that he is living with HIV in a debate he gave in the Commons?

You further write that it is better to make headlines because of sharing fake news than because of having been involved in corrupt practices. Without getting into the moral blameworthiness of the two actions, the comparison is totally irrelevant. In a very thwarted way, you made the apology about yourself and not to the people who are living or affected by HIV. Living with HIV in Malta is enough of a nightmare because of the lack of treatment quality and services. Misinforming the general public about the routes of transmission of HIV is definitely something we can do without.  

In the next few lines, I will provide you with some information on HIV - for even though it looks like you are pretty savvy with technology, your apology indicates that you still have not found the time, or maybe even the interest -which is worse- to google search HIV. HIV is a virus which attacks the immune system which if left untreated, can heavily compromise the immune system resulting into what is known as AIDS. AIDS is nothing but the set of symptoms and illnesses one lives due to the damage caused to the immune system when HIV is left untreated

So, let us debunk myth 1: HIV and AIDS are not one and the same thing; one can live with HIV but not have AIDS i.e. one can only have AIDS if the virus remains untreated for a number of years and the immune system loses its capacity to fight opportunistic infections

Myth 2: HIV is easily transmittable. A quick look at the NHS website on the causes of HIV and AIDS tells us that in fact "HIV isn't passed on easily from one person to another'. HIV is found in high enough concentrations to be transmitted in blood and in some other bodily fluids: semen, vaginal fluids, including menstrual blood, breast milk and the lining of the anus". The highest route of transmission is through unprotected vaginal and anal sex without PrEP (Pre-Exposure prophylaxis). HIV cannot be transmitted through spitting, kissing, being bitten, sharing baths or towels or cutlery with someone living with HIV.

Myth 3: HIV is a death penalty. With the introduction of Anti-retroviral treatment (ARV) in the late 1990s, HIV has become known as a manageable chronic health condition where the quality of life of the people living with HIV is determined by the quality of the medication they receive and HIV services they have access to. In countries where the latest combination of ARV is available, those living with HIV are able to control the infection by taking 1 pill a day. However, in Malta, clinicians, through no fault of their own, can only prescribe ARVs which are not only old but also fall out of international recommended guidelines and pill burden is ridiculously higher; a combination of up to 6-8 pills a day can be prescribed. The side effects are terrible, and adherence can be a problem. This is not only upsetting but defeats Public Health policy. It is now a scientifically proven fact that a person living with HIV who is on effective treatment and who has retained an undetectable viral load (lower than 200 copies/mL) for a period of 6 months cannot sexually transmit the virus to another person, even in the absence of condom use during sex. In other words, a person living with HIV can become non-infectious; Undetectable=Untransmittable.

Myth 4: HIV is only preventable with correct use of condoms. Since 2015, PrEP, a pill which if taken daily or intermittently prevents the acquisition of by 99%, has led to a dramatic decrease in the number of new HIV infections. Major cities and countries have reported and contributed to the decrease in numbers of new infections to PrEP. Unfortunately, in Malta, PrEP is not available through the NHS or in any pharmacy. It can, however, be bought online. Before deciding whether PrEP is for you, it is suggested that you read up about it and discuss it with the clinicians at the GU who will carry the necessary tests and issue a prescription for you just in case the medication gets stuck at customs.

Let it be known far and wide, members of Parliament have a far greater responsibility to inform themselves and educate people and not spread fake news than the general public.

You can book a sexual health screening at the GU clinic (Mater Dei Hospital) by calling 2122 7981.




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