Johnson & Johnson has partnered with LGBTQIA+ media organization Equal Pride to celebrate 10 “HIV Heroes.”

The 10 individuals have dedicated their work lives to advancing HIV/AIDS education, removing the stigma and misinformation about the virus and supporting the Undetectable=Untransmittable (U=U) movement. J&J announced the honorees in the lead up to the AIDS 2022 Conference held earlier this week in Montreal.

Ever since the earliest efforts to combat HIV began in the 1980s, advocates have played a signature role in the fundamental changes that paved the way for scientific progress, according to Dr. Brian Woodfall, VP of global clinical development at Janssen. 

Though these advocates may have been perceived as “problematic” decades ago, Woodfall believes that opinion shifted during the 1990s and 2000s — and, as a result, that it is now widely accepted that defeating HIV will require contributions from all stakeholders, not just regulators and the pharma industry. 

Woodfall noted that, during the development of HIV drugs, pharma companies invited advocates to serve on advisory boards to review protocols and assist in the creation of clinical trials.

“It was a time when it became a partnership and collaboration,” he recalled. 

The thread binding the 10 HIV Heroes, according to Woodfall, is their patient-centric approach to addressing the disease. Too, they share a certain resilience in terms of overcoming challenges, such as barriers to accessing care and prevention services, in their local communities.

Woodfall said that the marketing community has a part to play in the battle against HIV, especially in generating awareness.

“Celebrating the work that people are doing and having hope for the future — these are tools that raise awareness and hopefully decrease stigma,” he stressed. “It shows the human face of people working in this area.”

Stuart Brockington, EVP of brand partnerships and integrated sales at Equal Pride, agrees, adding that amplifying the voices of advocates and researchers alike should be a central component in the communication strategy around HIV and AIDS. He characterized the partnership with J&J as “inspiring,” noting that it recognizes leaders and shares stories that contribute to meaningful change. As recently as a decade ago, he said, public perception of HIV was significantly different than it is today. 

“What we’ve seen is a move from clinical representation to representations of vibrancy, hope and resiliency,” Brockington explained. “We know that as we move forward each year, there are more innovations, technologies and stories that are encouraging and helping to inspire change.”

As for the U=U movement, Brockington noted that one of its priorities is communicating that, if the virus is undetectable in an individual living with HIV, then it is not transmissible. This message removes the stigma associated with having HIV, he said, and pushes countries around the world to undo HIV criminalization laws.