The landscape has shifted since AIDS appeared on the global stage in 1981. Antiviral drugs allow people to live healthy lives and share intimate relationships with virtually no risk of transmitting the disease. Prophylaxis drugs protect people who are HIV negative from contracting the disease from an HIV-positive partner. Laws protect people from discrimination based on their HIV status.
Yet, 35 million people have died. Another 36 million live with the disease. More than 1 million Americans have HIV and one in seven of them don’t know it. And while infection rates decline for some not so for young people, African Americans, transgender women, and men who have sex with men.
In honor of the 30th annual World AIDS Day, celebrated Dec. 1, 2018, agencies, advocates and officials are still encouraging people to get tested and get treatment.
“It’s important that we take these moments to remember there are people in our community who are suffering, and we have it in our power to end this disease,” Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said Thursday. “So know your status.”
Hasan Cross got tested 13 years ago after a pushy friend kept nagging. “I did it to appease him,” Cross said Thursday as the Board of Commissioners issued a proclamation marking World AIDS Day.
When his test came back positive, Cross was just 25. He read the diagnosis as a death sentence. But staff at Multnomah County’s HIV Health Services Center told him to have hope.
“Come see us whenever you want,” Cross recalls staff saying. “Don’t be afraid. We got your back.”
Today,Cross has a suppressed HIV viral load, which means there is so little HIV virus in his system that blood tests can’t detect it. It’s an indicator of his health and makes it nearly impossible to transmit the virus to others. He still goes to the clinic, where he sees Nurse Practitioner Maria Kosmetatos, “The best doctor I’ve ever had.”
“They have given me the best care I could possibly get. They’re great, uplifting people,” Cross said. “I can only thank the clinic for giving me my life and allowing me the opportunity and the platform to appeal to you, to show the work we have done, are doing and will continue to do, on behalf of those who can’t.”
The HIV Health Services Center in downtown Portland serves about 1,500 clients. In the Portland metro area, the rate of viral load suppression rate is 83 percent and rates of new infection are dropping. Health officials ascribe the decrease to a combination of condom distribution, HIV testing and treatment, and preventing infection with a power prevention called Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe PrEP as a single pill (brand name Truvada) that contains two medicines that are used in combination with other medicines to treat HIV and greatly reduce the risk of infection.
“The reason we want to keep calling out world AIDS day is that we’re not done with this issue,” said Toni Kempner, the County’s HIV clinic director. “We don’t have the cure.”
She said people living with HIV and AIDS still worry about losing their jobs and their housing. And, it can be scary to talk to someone about HIV. Two out of three people say it’s hard to talk about HIV with others. One out of three say they feel guilty about having HIV. One-in-four say their HIV status makes them feel “worthless.”
“When you talk about stigma, you talk about shame,” Kempner said. “Fear of disclosure, isolation, and despair. These feelings can keep people from getting tested and treated for HIV. It's a gift you don’t get to give back.”
The Health Department’s message, she said, is simple: Get tested. Get Prep. Get Treated.
Commissioner Dr. Sharon Meieran was working in a San Francisco emergency room in the 1980s when AIDS was killing so many in the gay community. She can still remember the fear of AIDS and the stigma ascribed to anyone thought to have it.
“World AIDS day reminds us how much progress we’ve made,” she said, “and how much work we still have to do.”
In Honor of World AIDS Day
Check out this full list of events in the Portland Metro area, including:
- Nov. 30-Dec. 2: The Morrison Bridge will be lit up red after dark in honor of people living with HIV and AIDS.
- Dec. 1: The Portland Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will lead a moving vigil following the Dandy Warhols’ Big Gay Christmas Show, where they will be raising money for SMYRC. 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.
- Dec. 1: The Q Center hosts “The Living Vigil: 30 Years of HIV” in honor of those who have did of AIDS. 6:30 to 9 p.m.
- Dec. 3: Join Cascade AIDS Project for the Heroes of HIV to honor people and agencies that have fought on behalf of people living with HIV. 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Dec. 5: Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon's Daily Bread Express and HIV Day Center host a World AIDS Day luncheon to honor the annual event. Noon to 1:30 p.m.