Written by Khadijah Abdullah
“My name is Bilal and I am a Muslim living with the human immunodeficiency virus, better known as HIV. I am married and my wife along with our two beautiful children are HIV negative. You ask, how is that possible? Well, I am undetectable. That means the amount of HIV in my body (viral load) is so low that it cannot be detected on standard tests. The medicine I take prevents HIV from replicating or making new copies of itself in my body. Yes, I am still HIV positive as there isn’t a cure, but being undetectable means there is next to zero risk of transmitting the virus to my wife. My wife and I were able to start a family without worries because of my undetectable status. I am sharing my story with you because I want it to be known, there is life beyond HIV. Life doesn’t stop because of your HIV status. It keeps going and you should too. HIV doesn’t define me, I define me and there is no shame in being HIV positive.”
My name is Khadijah Abdullah and I am the founder of Reaching All HIV+ Muslims in America (RAHMA). Located in the nation’s capital, RAHMA is the only organization of its kind that addresses HIV and AIDS in the American Muslim community through education, advocacy, and empowerment. Our work is based on the fundamental principles of Rahma (mercy). Since our inception in 2012, our programs have included: educational workshops in mosques, free HIV testing, youth peer education programs, interfaith youth programs, a support group for HIV positive Muslims, a weekend retreat for HIV positive Muslims and their allies, and the formation of a Persons Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) advisory board. We are also starting a project on Female Genital Cutting with a partnership through George Washington University and will also launch a training for Imams to provide support to HIV positive Muslims in their mosques as well as join in the fight to combat stigma and educate the Ummah. To learn more about our programs, please visit our website – here.
You ask, why am I doing this work? It is because of people like Bilal. He and many others inspire me to educate the world about HIV, especially in our community. Unfortunately, incidents of stigma, discrimination, and violence, at the hands of our own brothers and sisters, continue to happen. RAHMA is diligently working to combat the stigma and create safe spaces. People like Bilal who are living long, healthy, and productive lives are proof that this virus is no longer a death sentence. It is now considered a manageable chronic condition, just like diabetes. The images that flooded the media in the 80’s are no longer the reality, as today’s medicine helps the HIV positive community stay healthy. HIV positive Muslims are in the mosques and are a part of the community. They are leaders and counselors, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons. They want you to know it’s OK to educate yourself on HIV. Support is needed and judgment is not welcome.
The images that flooded the media in the 80’s are no longer the reality…
Remember, there is no shame in being HIV positive.
Here are a few truths about HIV:
You cannot contract HIV by hugging or kissing someone who is positive. You cannot contract HIV by eating off the same plate, sharing eating utensils, or drinking from the same glass. Nor can you contract it from the air, toilet seat, shaking someone’s hand, or car seat.
HIV is transmitted via 4 ways:
- Infected Blood
- Vaginal Fluids
- Breast Milk
The acts that lead to transmission of the virus are: unprotected sex with someone who is HIV positive, exposure to an infected needle, baby’s exposure to their mother’s infected blood during childbirth, breast milk, and blood transfusions (the last three are very low risk in the US and pretty much non-existent due to education, screenings, and medicine).
If you are at high risk for contracting HIV (ex: having regular unprotected sex with someone who is or may be HIV positive and not undetectable), ask your doctor about PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). PrEP is a pill that is taken daily, to prevent HIV from inhabiting the body if exposed. Think of it as daily vaccine.
Note: PrEP is most effective when taken daily. Although studies have shown high efficacy even when taken up to four times a week, it’s most effective when taken daily as prescribed. One small blue pill a day can keep HIV away.
If you are unintentionally exposed to HIV (raped, occupational hazard, unprotected sex with someone who has an unknown status, shared a used needle, etc.), ask your doctor about PEP (post exposure prophylaxis). This works just like PrEP and if taken within 72 hours or less after exposure, it can help prevent HIV transmission and the virus from making a permanent home in your body.
If you are HIV positive, talk to your doctor about what treatment options are best for you and how you, too, can achieve an undetectable viral load. As Bilal expressed earlier, once your viral load is undetectable, you have next to zero chance of transmitting HIV to others. How exciting! This is known as treatment as prevention (TaSP or TaP). In fact, a recent study involving subjects in sero-different relationships proved this fact. Sero-different means, one partner is HIV negative and one partner is HIV positive. Over 1,000 couples participated in a study and had sex 58,000 times (sometimes unprotected) and still remained sero-different. It is amazing how medicine has advanced!
Note: If you do not take your HIV medication exactly as prescribed, what we refer to as adherence, it’s possible for your body to build a resistance in which case the medication would no longer be effective.
If you do not know your status, get tested. There are organizations near you that offer free and confidential HIV testing. The first step is knowing your status. The sooner you know your status, the faster you can start treatment and become undetectable. RAHMA offers a Buddy Program that connects newly diagnosed patients with those who have been HIV positive for a longer period of time.
Now that you know these truths, take the next step and share this information with others. Knowledge is power. No one should feel like they don’t belong. Invite RAHMA to your area to do a workshop. You will come away with a wealth of knowledge from our engaging and interactive forums. You will know your HIV status. You will know how to be supportive to someone who is HIV positive. If you are HIV positive, you will learn important information on how to stay healthy and still live out your dreams. Also, if you are a healthcare provider or community organization and would like guidance on caring for clients from the Muslim community, invite us to do a cultural sensitivity training. To get started, send an email to me at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you.
Bilal would like to leave you with these words:
“I am not contagious. Don’t treat me any differently than anyone else if you learn of my HIV status. I am Human. I am Muslim, and there is no shame in being HIV positive.”
The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: