Thursday, August 18, 2011

My Summer with IRMA

By Aldona Martinka, IRMA Intern

Today is my last day at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, where I had the pleasure of interning this summer. I am one of the last summer interns remaining, and the empty intern “sweatshop” surrounds me. I had the opportunity to work with AFC and IRMA, as well as with Mapping Pathways and Project CRYSP for the summer at this desk, facing a window with blinds that are always closed. The closed blinds never bothered me, though, because whenever I was at my desk my eyes were fixed on my computer screen. I know that statement does little to separate me from the rest of my generation, but there is a good reason that I did not often look away from my work: I was fascinated.

I joke with my friends that I read about sex all day for work, but it’s true. In my work with HIV, and especially in my work with IRMA, I am constantly exposed to sex. My days are spent absorbing information about it: clinical studies showing the effectiveness of antiretroviral-based prevention methods, laws that criminalize and stigmatize high-risk groups, public health efforts in deeply-affected areas, or even sexual advice for HIV-positive people looking for love in modern America. Not only that, but for IRMA much of my reading was about the sexual act that is perhaps the most taboo, anal sex, because of the high risk of transmission and the sociocultural issues surrounding it. For a shy girl from a Catholic family this was a lot to take in. I quickly adjusted, though, and as my internship comes to a close I can discuss lubricant distribution in the rectum with a straight face and a confident smile. Though initially kind of shocking, I learned so much in these past several months, and what I learned has crystallized so much for me.

I learned that there are more HIV prevention tools even than there were 4 years ago when I took sex ed in high school. Rectal and vaginal microbicides, PrEP, and treatment as prevention represent real methods of preventing HIV that should be added to condoms as tools in the global prevention toolbox. Not only are they effective enough to warrant more exploration and consideration, but they provide protection in the wide variety of cases where condoms are a less desirable option, or not an option at all. With these prevention methods sex workers, wives in patriarchal societies, members of sero-discordant couples, and many other at-risk people can be protected that may not want to or be able to use condoms for a variety of reasons.

I learned just how inextricably HIV/AIDS is linked to my other passion: human rights. I learned about how government and cultural views toward sex workers, women, and LGBT people affects everything from the availability of condoms to the accessibility of treatment, and can create many difficulties in between. I also learned about the criminalization and stigmatization of HIV-positive individuals, something which surprised and horrified me, and how the continuation of these only obstructs public health efforts.

I learned so much, but I learned one last thing of personal significance to me. I was chattering excitedly at my father about the internship portion of my upcoming semester abroad in India, and how I hoped to work with an organization there that fights HIV. He asked if I wanted to look at other internships as well, to broaden my areas of knowledge in public health. While answering that question, I realized that everything I’ve learned in this internship, all of the related issues and exciting science, had led me to this seemingly unexceptional question. “No,” I said, “I want to continue to work with HIV.” Everything about it, the human right issues, the new advances in prevention and treatment, and my personal experiences with advocacy work, have captured my attention and drawn me to the fight against AIDS. I hope to continue in the field of HIV prevention and advocacy, and my time at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago with IRMA has provided me with invaluable experience. Thank you to all of the IRMA community for allowing me this opportunity. With a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, hopefully someday no one will have to go without a way to prevent HIV, for any reason.

[If an item is not written by an IRMA member, it should not be construed that IRMA has taken a position on the article's content, whether in support or in opposition.]

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