Last week, I called on the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University to retract a botched story about HIV. While they didn’t remove the story, they did apologize to their readers for spreading “medical misinformation” – among other things.
I did some research after the publication of my editorial, "FAU Paper Must Retract HIV-Related Story," and I quickly realized this was not an anomaly. Gen Zers are woefully ignorant when it comes to HIV.
According to the 2023 State of HIV Stigma report from GLAAD, “This year, for the first time, we noted an alarming generation gap. Gen Z, the youngest generation in population surveys, is the most diverse and most out LGBTQ generation in history. According to our study, Gen Z is also the least knowledgeable about HIV.”
Only 34% of Gen Zers consider themselves to be knowledgeable about HIV. Forty-two percent know a little bit; 19% have heard the term HIV, and 5% are not aware of HIV at all.
What makes this lack of knowledge dangerous though is that people aged 13 to 34 accounted for 57% of new diagnoses, according to the report.
So our youngest generation is the least knowledgeable about HIV, and they account for most of the new HIV infections.
But that’s not all.
Earlier this year HIV advocates attempted to stop the publication, from a major publisher, of a book by a well-known HIV denialist.
Think about that. In 2023 people are still publishing books spreading AIDS denialism.
“The rights of freedom of speech are paramount,” Jason Rosenberg, a member of ACT UP NY, told Mark King, a noted HIV blogger, “but when bad actors take advantage of that right and lead with science denialism and health misinformation — especially through the channels of a major publication, it is important that we fight it and deplatform these bad actors with every opportunity. We’ve seen it recently from the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is true with HIV/AIDS, racism, transphobia, fascism, and every public health threat.”
Rosenberg writes in another post for TheBody: “research shows conclusively that lack of information and misinformation do material harm to HIV prevention, testing, and treatment.”
That’s why I took the story in the student newspaper so seriously. Everything I’ve learned since my editorial has validated the need for it in the first place, and I stand by my calls for retraction.
Rosenberg issues a call to action in that post as well saying “We Must Fight Misinformation Whenever It Appears.”
He’s right. We must all be advocates.
For instance, nowhere does it say in the student newspaper story HIV is a sexually transmitted infection.
Instead, it says this: “HIV transmits through direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood and semen from a person with a detectable viral load. Pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding can also spread HIV, the World Health Organization reported."
This passage leaves out important context like how the exchange of fluids and the specific behaviors / activities contribute to spreading HIV.
The Centers for Disease Control sums it up like this: “Most people who get HIV get it through anal or vaginal sex, or sharing needles, syringes, or other drug injection equipment [for example, cookers].”
In 2021, according to the CDC, 71% of new HIV infections were from male-to-male sexual contact; 22% were from heterosexual contact and 7% were among people who inject drugs. Meanwhile, mother-to-child transmission is just a blip in new infections.
The student newspaper story also stated, “…but medications can treat the condition and facilitate disease progression.”
This is not only false – it’s a core principle of AIDS denialism. I do not believe the editors of the newspaper are AIDS denialists, but regardless, the information is just as dangerous.
That sentence has since been updated to “slow disease progression.”
While that may be technically correct it’s still misleading since HIV-positive people who are on medications have a similar life expectancy as someone who is HIV-negative. But, more importantly, those who are on medications and have undetectable viral loads cannot transmit the virus to their partners.
So simply saying “slow disease progression” could still leave the wrong impression with someone who is unfamiliar with HIV.
During the first decade of this century, AIDS denialism was a major factor in South Africa where one doctor denounced HIV drugs claiming instead vitamins would cure the disease. For years the South African government legitimized this quack.
So even as we commemorate another World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, it’s clear the work is not done. There is still misinformation regarding HIV and we must be as vigilant as ever.
THE APOLOGY FROM THE FAU PAPER
"On Nov. 7, the UP published a story about a trans artist and an FAU alum who uses art to raise awareness for HIV. The story contained medical misinformation regarding what HIV is and how to prevent it. When the editors learned of the mistake, we took action to correct the story with accurate medical information. We sincerely apologize to our readers for the errors.
The story also included a quote from the artist, who is HIV positive, portraying HIV as a curse. A paragraph after the quote referred to HIV as a curse. We understand how that can be offensive to anyone living with HIV or who knows someone who lives with it or died from AIDS. We have since removed that sentence and sincerely apologize to anyone we offended. We weren't very thorough in our editing, and we should have been. We will be more careful going forward with fact-checking stories.
As the editor-in-chief, I accept full blame for the errors and assure all readers that I'm working closely with the editorial staff to address these issues so they don't occur in the future."