DURHAM — Bill Moize of Durham has seen great changes since he contracted the HIV virus 19 years ago. The cocktail of pills he took then each day to ward off AIDS has been replaced by a single pill, and he’s still healthy at age 54.
But some things haven’t changed: some people are still afraid to shake his hand for fear they’ll get HIV.
“It’s not my disease that affects others, it’s what they have that will affect me,” Moize said. “The person who has a common cold is more dangerous to a person with HIV than I could ever be to them.”
On World AIDS Day, the 24th international observance to raise awareness about the disease, advocates say the world has the tools to make this the year that no new viruses are transmitted. But the infection’s stigma remains an obstacle to stopping its spread, said Carolyn McAllaster, clinical professor of law at Duke University and director of the AIDS Legal Project, which represents clients with HIV and AIDS.
Fear and misconceptions about the disease results in fewer people being tested or staying on medication, resulting in more infections, McAllaster said.
About 51 percent of all new HIV infections in 2010 were in the southern states, from Texas to Delaware, even though they comprise only about 37 percent of the population, according to a report released Wednesday by the Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research at Duke.
“We have the poor social determinants of health,” McAllaster said. “We have high poverty and high numbers of uninsured. We have a cultural climate that contributes to the stigma. And the high poverty results in state governments not having the resources to put the dollars in that we need.”
The AIDS Legal Project worked with at least 25 clients in 2011 who faced discrimination from employers, McAllaster said.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act has really given us a tool to fight discrimination,” McAllaster said. “We still see cases every month. We get a call from someone whose boss finds out they’re HIV positive and fires them, or assigns them different work. We are able to solve those cases quite easily with the law.”
McAllaster said she frequently sees discrimination within the restaurant industry, and even in the health care industry.
“I am not seeing a lot of improvement in stigma and discrimination over the years, and that’s one of the more discouraging factors of my work,” McAllaster said. “You get these calls and you go, ‘Really? Really?’ ”
Moize said he’s no longer ashamed to say that he’s a face of HIV, though he said he still has to be careful who he tells he has the virus. He said he’s at the point that he can laugh at the ignorance of those who are hesitant to give him a hug.
Moize learned he contracted the virus just after he had moved back home to Durham after spending more than a decade working in theater in New York City.
“Twenty years ago, we didn’t know what it was,” Moize said. “It was the gays; it was all this, it was the Africans’ fault. Nobody really knew; we just knew that people were dying.”
Science has come a long way, to the point that researchers are talking about the infection’s eventual eradication. A 2011 UNC-Chapel Hill study showed that proper HIV medication reduced sexual transmission of the virus from an infected person to his or her partner by 96 percent.
“(HIV and AIDS) are generally sexually transmitted diseases, and if we could implement all of the preventative measures, we could live without this disease,” said Dr. Barton Haynes, director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.
The most effective way to prevent an infectious disease is with a vaccine, Haynes said, and scientists are getting closer to developing one.
“Within the last three or four years, we’ve developed a fundamental understanding of why we haven’t been able to develop a vaccine and why it escapes the immune system,” Haynes said. “And that’s fundamental to being able to design a vaccine.”