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“It’s my super power now”: Utah residents living with HIV work to break down stigma surrounding the disease

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – When Sequan Kolibas was diagnosed with HIV for eight years, the mother of one kept him to herself for years, largely fearing the reaction of others to her news.

Those fears were confirmed when she let out her secret one day while talking to a friend.

“We were just talking about HIV and, and I had kind of a seizure and I told him I had it and he was like, ‘Well, only hookers and junkies get HIV. So which one are you? ‘ “

Kolibas’ fear of the stigma surrounding the disease had proven to be justified. That had been her biggest concern when she learned she had contracted the virus from her five-year-old partner, a man.

“It was extremely scary, it changed my life,” she recalls. “To be honest. I had periods of suicidal thoughts, severe depression. I just thought my happiness was over and my life was over. I let HIV become who I am, instead of “to be a part of who I was. I let my diagnosis define me.

On Wednesday December 1, World AIDS Day will be celebrated, in memory of those who have lost their lives due to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, which is initially caused by a diagnosis of HIV. The occasion of 2021 is particularly poignant as it marks 40 years since the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first reported the emergence of AIDS among gay communities in New York and California.

Originally dubbed “gay cancer,” the HIV and AIDS epidemic has been ravaged by misinformation, misunderstanding and, of course, stigma against those who contract the virus. Researchers ultimately reduced its primary means of transmission to sharing needles or injection equipment, exposure to blood in open wounds, and sexual intercourse. The shocking announcement of NBA star Magic Johnson’s infection in 1991 showed that HIV can affect people of any sexual orientation – gay or heterosexual – but many of the stigmas have always been hard to shake.

“I think this has persisted since the 1980s,” says Heather Bush, who manages the HIV program for the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) to ABC4.com. “In addition to facing a life-threatening disease, and all that it means, people with HIV worry about what people are going to think or how they are being paid. It’s just a huge additional burden that people have to face. And I think a lot of it is perception.

The truth is, living with HIV in 2021 is very different from what it was in 1981, as evidenced by testimonials and information from a new UDOH campaign, HIVandMe.com. While illness is still a part of life; the website says every three days a new Utah resident is diagnosed with HIV, no longer a death sentence.

Advances in prevention and treatment have made transmission nearly impossible for people with the disease who take appropriate measures, which can be as simple as a daily pill for antiretroviral therapy (ART) and extra precautions for antiretroviral therapy (ART). sexually active people. The new term in HIV medicine is “U = U”. The antiretroviral drug can reduce the amount of HIV in the blood to undetectable levels. If it is undetectable, it cannot be transmitted to others.

“We know it’s still there, we know they still have the virus, but it’s so weak that not only does it protect them and keep them from getting sick, but it also prevents them from passing it on to others. people, ”he added. Bush says, adding that those who have an HIV-positive partner who are not infected can also take preventative drugs. “We have a lot of tools that we didn’t even have 5-10 years ago.”

The biggest obstacle that remains is stigma, as both Bush and Kolibas agree. While medical advances have provided the means to make the spread of HIV and AIDS much more difficult if the right precautions are taken, opening the dialogue is still a work in progress.

Kolibas has since found purpose by sharing its story and founding a nonprofit that provides resources to those infected and information to those with outdated fears and misconceptions about HIV and AIDS.

“You don’t have to change who you are, it doesn’t define who you are,” she says, mentioning that her T-cell count, or the number of disease-fighting blood cells, is higher than before. diagnostic. “We are opening the conversation to educate people so that we can reduce this stigma for people. “

For years, many have thought that even routine, non-sexual or blood-related contact with someone living with HIV could be dangerous. Kolibas’ mission now is to shatter these misconceptions.

“It’s the misconception of ‘Well it’s just a gay disease’, or if somebody has it, you can’t share the same utensils, you can’t squeeze them in their arms you can’t drink out of the same cup as them It’s just about education now I’m kind of using HIV as my superpower now.


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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.