“It’s a junky’s disease,” they say carelessly. “People only get it from sharing dirty needles and being degenerate low-lifes.”

It’s funny to hear the people things say out of ignorance, and out of misconception. It’s not so funny when these thoughtless comments are stupid, wrong, and hurtful, and you feel an uneasy need to speak up but you don’t want to be the one to do it. Ignorance may be bliss, but it can also be amazingly, horrifyingly cruel, and even after the ignorant have been educated, the hurt still lingers.

Nowhere is this more true, for me, than in the realm of bloodborne diseases. Did you know that you can only get AIDS if you are gay? That Hepatitis C only strikes junkies? That if you’re sexually promiscuous, you could get Lassa fever? If you get a tattoo, you’re just asking for Marburg? Because I didn’t, but according to popular opinion, all of these things are true. According to popular opinion, none of the following is a potential vector for bloodborne disease transmission: needlestick incidents at hospitals, being bitten by a drunk while on duty as a police officer, tainted blood donations, giving CPR to a bleeding accident victim without protection, being born to a mother infected with a bloodborne disease, working on an ambulance and having a patient vomit blood on you, being exposed to infectious materials in the course of your work, or a malicious and willful effort by an infected individual.

The thing is, to get a bloodborne disease, apparently, you need to be asking for it. Because people who don’t ask for it obviously don’t get bloodborne diseases. Bad things never happen to good people, and this, therefore, gives you carte blanche to make blanket statements about things you don’t know anything about. And Pete forbid that people should educate you about risk factors so that you can make informed decisions (and statements). It’s far better to keep people in a state of utter confusion and fear, rather than being up-front about things.

Do some choices increase your risk of getting a blood-borne disease? Sure thing. Being a nurse is a great risk factor. So is being a doctor, a police officer, or a paramedic. Oh, and unprotected sex is a great way to get some bloodborne pathogens, especially AIDS. Sharing dirty needles probably isn’t such a good call, and neither is getting a tattoo at a dirty shop. But there are risk factors for everything, and bloodborne pathogens have multiple vectors for transmission, which means that you can’t make sweeping statements about the lifestyles of people who have them. And when you do, you sound stupid. And given that people you know are probably infected with the diseases you’re spouting off about, it’s fair to say that you’re also hurting someone with your stupidity.

We live in a society where people with bloodborne illnesses have been taught to conceal it, to live underground, to not say anything about it because they will be met with social stigma. When every disclosure of your disease status is met with horror and disgust, except among those who share it, you tend to be closemouthed about it. 200 million people worldwide have Hepatitis C; around 2% of Americans do, according to the CDC. 30 million people have AIDS. Are the people who make dismissive comments about these viruses really so sure that they know everything about the people who have them? Do people seriously still believe that only gay men get AIDS? That junkies are the only ones who get Hep C?

Periodically this issue just inflames me with irritation; you can see the post Ostracism for more on this subject, for example. I note that I wrote that last December, so maybe it’s something about the end of the year that gets me seething when it comes to bloodborne pathogens. But I’m tired of listening to people make uninformed statements. I’m tired of people who make sweeping claims about things without a shred of evidence. I’m tired of people who tell me that they vote the way they do because someone else tells them to. I’m tired of people who mindlessly parrot the things they are told, rather than questing for verification. I’m tired of the complete lack of initiative and imagination in this country.

I’ve been told before that I am an intellectual elitist, and maybe I am. I don’t have much of a tolerance for stupidity, that’s for sure, and I don’t have much sympathy for people who can’t take the time to educate themselves. But I also think that idiocy isn’t always the fault of the idiot, especially when so many sources of information are so very wrong. Is it an idiot’s fault when he or she only gets information from people who are not allowed to disclose the whole story, as is the case with sexual education in the United States? Is it the fault of an idiot that he or she is scared into thinking something by an authority figure? Maybe it’s the intellectual elitist’s fault for complaining about the idiot, but not offering up some new sources of information.

For me, symptoms of irritation tend to emerge as a result of exposure to idiots. Alas, an idiot allergy is a difficult thing to manage; like those who are allergic to nuts, I could just avoid idiots, I suppose, but it’s harder than you think. You never know when idiots might be baked into the crust of a seemingly innocuous pie, or when idiot oil is used to fry your food. Fortunately, one exposure won’t kill me, but sometimes it feels that way.

Maybe it’s time to get more aggressive about idiot education. I’m tempted to do a series here on bloodborne diseases, except that I hope that all of you, gentle readers, are not idiots. But maybe I’ll do it anyway: what do you think?

7 Replies to “Stigma”

  1. I come in peace from Holidailies. When I think about blood-borne diseases I say “there, but for the grace of a higher power I can’t prove the existence of, go I.” As with many things, it makes you smarter to think this way. But getting all the facts on your blog. That would be great, too.

  2. I am already a fan of your clear, vivid writing style. Although I like to think I’m not usually an idiot I would still love to read a series of such posts.

    Sweetisu, I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma too! Luckily I didn’t have to go through anything like the encounter you described. Holy crap.

  3. I really like this ain’t living. Your no-nonsense style and your passion are wonderful to read in a world filled with vague and insipid blogs.

    One of my favorite recent comments that I’ve been making on a few sites (where we’ve had some heated discussion) goes something like: Don’t you just love people who never let a few facts get in the way of their opinions…

  4. I’m allergic to idiots, too. Last year, I took a Red Cross class on blood-borne pathogens. I already knew most of what they could teach in an hour; what was new to me was the number of idiotic ideas about how these diseases are transmitted. And yes, I’d read more.

    My husband had cancer (non-Hodgkins lymphoma) in the early ’80’s. He had a number of blood transfusions in a large urban hospital just as AIDS appeared on the scene. There but for the grace of whoever, indeed.

  5. people being idiots makes me sad in my heart.

    organizations being idiots makes me angry. to me one of the most despicable problems in the world of blood-borne pathogen mis-education is the approach the red cross takes in ‘pre-screening’ candidates for blood donations.

    nothing pushes the myth that aids is a gay disease like having an internationally-respected organization universally rejecting the blood of any man who’s engaged in homosexual activity since 1977. every time i read that question i want to tear my hair out, because i know that when 90% of people read that question it just justifies their assumption that queers all have aids.


  6. I for one would be interested in reading them.

    My own grandmother (who was nearly 80 years old at the time, she is now 85) told me the reason I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma was due to a series of (superstitious) activities that I either did or didn’t do, such as moved the bed to a bad feng-shui section of the house, got married on a “bad” day, among other nonsense cr*p. I kid you not.

    The rhetorics that you’ve mentioned are a tad better, but it’s full of horse manure all the same.

  7. Sweetisu, that is really awful. At least you don’t have to listen to complete strangers spout off nonsense like “only people who engage in morally suspect activities get Hodgkin’s,” though.

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