INTERVIEW: New HIV & AIDS PSA features Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, who speaks about ending the epidemic

Today, GLAAD, in partnership with The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, released a 60-second public service announcement (PSA) aimed at inspiring action to beat the AIDS and HIV epidemic that has affected millions around the world. This PSA, produced by the award-winning Martian Entertainment, serves as a call to eliminate the AIDS and HIV epidemic once and for all.

Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, a New York City-based doctor who specializes in research on the prevention, identification, and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, is featured in the PSA, which is an extended version of the PSA released by ETAF and GLAAD last month.

To mark today's release, Dr. Daskalakis was interviewed by GLAAD about his work and about the path to eradicating the disease once and for all. 

Q: Today, GLAAD is releasing a moving PSA in partnership with The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, and you are a part of it alongside a number of celebrities. Why is a PSA about HIV and AIDS important right now and what made you want to say yes to this opportunity?

DD: This PSA is important because it brings some of the past of HIV into the present and highlights a lot of the points and issues that are very similar when talking about ending the epidemic in New York and beyond. This community is still up against stigma and a lot of the other issues that are barriers to accessing care. Many of the messages about connecting to care, engagement, and testing and what comes after are the same messages. This is a great way to bring the important past of HIV back into future. We are advanced in many ways, but we still have to learn from the past.

Q: HIV and AIDS have been in the public consciousness for three decades now. What are some of the lingering but common misconceptions about HIV and AIDS today?

DD: Some people still don't know all details about how it's transmitted. It's that simple. We could talk about that for a while. HIV testing is not something that is included in regular care, but it really should be. There are many important misconceptions. People do not seem to look at HIV like they would blood pressure, or someone talking to you about smoking cessation. In reality, a good piece of primary care would be to have an HIV test. Another important misconception is that there is no way to prevent HIV. Ranging from abstinence, which isn't really feasible, to condoms to pre-exposure prophylaxis, there are options. The other misconception is that people living with HIV somehow aren't aware that treating HIV is preventing HIV. People treating it know about it, but people living day-to-day don’t really know that. One stigma is the judgement of one's behavior or actions. But HIV is just another infection, just like tuberculosis or the flu. People get it. It is what it is and we need to make sure people connected to care, not the judgement of a community.

Q: As the PSA spotlights, HIV and AIDS haven't gone away, but we don't hear about it as much as we use to. Why do you think that is and what messages are important for Americans to hear when it comes to the disease?

DD: I think that the reason we're not hearing about it as much is because there's been so much success. In terms of not being a death sentence, studies show that people with HIV are expected to live as long if not longer because they are connected to care. Data says HIV testing is an important step to living longer and living free of complications. Getting tested for HIV is a critical part of healthcare. If you have HIV or don't have it, either result is good news. And that's what's new. If you don't have HIV, you can prevent it. If you do, you are linked to care and can take control of your health. It isn't about a test result being good or bad. It is what it is and ultimately leads to people living healthy lives, similar to screening for breast cancer.

Q: What about the most at-risk communities? Who are they and what messages do we need to get across to them in this new era of prevention and treatment?

DD: Nationally speaking, men who sex with men (MSM), specifically those who are either black or Hispanic and young, continue to be demographics who are at increased risk of HIV. Numerically small, but important, are those who identify as trans, men or women, as they are really important to epidemiological roots of the disease. Among women, numerically, the statistics go down as well, except for women who are either black or Hispanic. The main message for the population at risk with HIV is that you have to meet people where they are and some might not be comfortable in an LGBT or MSM space. There is a need to advise people to get tested in a space most comfortable to them. The other message is that, as many parts of country become friendly to LGBTQ people, the hope is that the stigma that leads people into late diagnoses goes away.

Q: HIV and AIDS is thankfully no longer a death sentence. What methods of prevention and treatment are available and most effective to prevent as well as treat the disease?

DD: In terms of treatment, anti-retroviral therapy (ART) is well-tolerated and suppresses viral loads. There are also medications that when people take as prescribed, decrease the amount of virus in their blood to less than what a lab test can detect, which is called "undetectable." The immune system can then either recover or stay healthy. These medicines are what have changed the game. Back when they shot the original footage for the PSA, very few medicines were available. Now they are getting easier and easier to access by those who need to take them, those engaged in care and taking ART . Prevention studies show that if the viral load is undetectable, the risk of HIV might go down by 93%. If there was a vaccine that could lower your chance of getting HIV by 93%, there would be a line around the block. These are better stats than the flu vaccine. In terms of negative people, use condoms. People might not use them frequently or correctly, so having PrEP and PEP, which are meds to take before or after the possibility of infection, prevents HIV. Those numbers are somewhere over 90% efficacy. It's a whole new world, but while medicines are great, they don't do well when on shelves. This needs to be in everyone's minds, hearts, hands, and eventually body. It is important for people living with HIV to engage in care.

Q: How has the experience of caring for HIV and AIDS patients affected you personally?

DD: I remember when I first decided to research HIV was in 1994 or '95, when I was working on displaying the AIDS memorial quilt at my college. I had lived in NY for a while, but never seen anyone who was sick. When the AIDS quilt came, I remember meeting people who were sick. I met someone going blind from CMV, someone in their 30s in 40s who should've been in their prime and at their healthiest. I remember seeing people come to visit the quilt and saying in my head, "Be a part of never letting this happen again." Taking care of people living with HIV and at risk has taught me about what medicine and care are about. You meet people where they are and give them advice. When meeting someone with HIV, you have someone with a new diagnosis and this is a moment you can take control of your health like you never have before. This is when you can quit smoking, think about your drug use, about relationships. Conversations around HIV care are conversations to have regardless of status. That's what I've learned. HIV is not a bad thing. It sounds crazy, but it's not. It can be a moment of great creation, of a path to better health. If you don't have it, stay negative. We know how to do that. If you do have it, there are so many ways to stay healthy, where you will be healthiest you can be.

Q: A big part of GLAAD's mission when it was founded was to encourage journalists and media outlets to more responsibly cover the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Do you think that journalists and media outlets today understand how to cover HIV and AIDS in this new era of prevention and treatment?

DD: That's a complicated question. The answer is that HIV treatment and prevention technology moves so rapidly that it moves faster than society in so many ways. I feel that there are some people that are reporting pretty well, but there is also a misconception in media around HIV, and there is still a significant role for GLAAD to play in trying to teach people to better cover HIV/AIDS that is sensitive to community and scientifically correct. It is better than it was, but there is room for improvement.

Q: How would you encourage readers to learn more about HIV and AIDS? How can they get involved in their own communities?

DD: First, the best way is to learn about HIV and AIDS, and there are plenty of resources, but I think sometimes it's helpful to look at movies and films around HIV and learn a little about it - movies like The Normal Heart that are more on the entertainment side in order to learn a little of the history of the disease. When seeing a healthcare provider, ask for an HIV test and have them talk to you about HIV testing. Then you will teach them something in return. In order the get involved, the homework for people is to talk about HIV and AIDS somewhere they think people don't talk about it. If you're involved in a safe space organization or some organization that isn't gay or lesbian or bisexual, but focuses on some other issue or cultural issue, inject HIV and AIDS into the conversation even for a minute to raise discussion. That changes the game and brings more people to the conversation and into HIV and AIDS world.

For more information on GLAAD's work to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS, click here.