Two decades ago, Eddie Collins was certain he would die of AIDS.
Today, he is not only living; he is thriving.
Collins is engaged and has two children. He manages living with HIV with the help of doctors and a community of family, health professionals, advocates and allies in Multnomah County.
“Here, today, I stand before you completely undetectable,” Collins said. “It is possible.”
Collins shared his story with the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Thursday shortly before the body adopted a proclamation declaring December 1 as World AIDS Day in Multnomah County.
The proclamation was introduced by Commissioner Loretta Smith, who praised the County’s partnerships with community organizations that raise awareness about HIV and AIDS and urged residents to stand in solidarity with people living with HIV and to support organizations that work to provide assistance to them.
World AIDS Day has been observed every year on December 1 since 1988.
“It’s an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people who are currently living with HIV and to commemorate those who have died from HIV or AIDS-related illness,” said Tyler TerMeer, executive director of Cascade AIDS Project (CAP). CAP is the oldest and largest community-based provider of HIV services, housing, education and advocacy in Oregon and Southwest Washington.
“If it wasn’t for CAP, I don’t know where I’d be,” Collins said. The organization helped Collins to find housing and a doctor who taught him how to take properly take his medication.
The first cases of what would become known as AIDS were reported in 1981. More than 700,000 people with AIDS have died since the epidemic began. Today, more than 1.2 million people live with HIV in the United States.
But much progress has been made “since the earliest and darkest days” of the AIDS epidemic to improve the lives of people living with the disease, TerMeer said, citing laws that protect people living with the illness and scientific advances in HIV care and treatment like the PrEP pill, which can help prevent new infection. An HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.
Commissioner Sharon Meieren recalled working as a medical student at San Francisco General Hospital in the late 1970s and early 1980s, on the heels of AIDS outbreak in San Francisco. By the time she arrived there had already been significant advancements in the treatment of HIV and AIDS-related illnesses.
“It really is incredible to see it is a manageable, chronic disease that you don’t really even think of it in the same way anymore,” Meieren said. “The advances are out there. What is key now is the access to treatment.”
Multnomah County Health Department’s HIV Health Services Center provides medical treatment, nursing care and social services to people living with HIV. The clinic serves about 1,500 people from teenagers to octogenarians, clinic manager Toni Kempner said.
However, as there continues to be success in treating the disease, the risk grows that the needs of people living with HIV will begin to fade from American consciousness and funding will erode.
“We know that people aren’t dying before us. ...People can get distracted and lose their focus when there’s so much bad news coming at us,” Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “And that’s why it’s ever important that we continue with these proclamations and continue to get the word out that there is still a lot to do. This could be a success story because we can end it. It’s a matter of time. it’s within our grasp; it’s within our sight. We just need to keep vigilant.”