When Gordon Thomas first learned he was HIV positive, he was told he would live two years.
He lived in Elizabethtown with his family, who like many at the time feared they would catch the infection. So he ate off paper plates and didn’t use the bathroom in the house.
“They were scared,” said Thomas, 48, now of Durham.
But more than 25 years later, much has changed for Thomas and the more than 1.2 million people in the U.S. living with HIV infections. Medications have improved the quality of life and extended life expectancy to almost normal for those who seek treatment. Medications also have helped prevent the spread of disease to partners. The stigma has improved in some cases, Thomas and others said, but it still exists.
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“I know a person who invites me to their house to eat, but they don’t allow me to fix my own plate,” Thomas said. People from his church, he said, are scared to visit him at his home.
Thomas was among about 50 people who gathered at the LGBTQ Center in Durham to observe World AIDS Day. The Partnership for a Healthy Durham’s HIV/STI Committee and its partners hosted the event. The day marked an opportunity to celebrate progress, to recognize those who have lost their lives and to push for continued improvements.
Gayle Harris, Durham County’s Public Health director, urged people get a routine HIV test, ask their healthcare providers about prevention, teach their children HIV prevention, and lobby elected officials for more funding for HIV programs.
“The time to act is now,” Harris said, to reduce the number of new cases each year.
In Durham County, there are about 1,600 people living with HIV infections. The county ranks No. 3 in the state for the highest average rate of newly diagnosed HIV cases over a three-year period. In 2014, Durham County had 66 new cases compared to 70 in 2013.
Dr. Barbara Johnston, chief of HIV services at Lincoln Community Health Center, linked the high rate to two factors. The community is welcoming to a diverse population, including high-risk groups such as men who have sex with men.
Durham County has also stepped up a push to diagnose new cases, she said. Those efforts include the Durham Knows campaign that shares information about testing sites, prevention methods and care.
The current challenges in the HIV community, Johnston said, include diagnosing those infected.
One in eight people living with HIV are unaware of their infection, according to the website AIDS.gov. Meanwhile, many who are at higher risk don’t realize they can take a pill to prevent infection and that a diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, Johnston said.
“There is still a lot of that ‘I just don’t want to know,’ ” Johnston said.
Michael Wilson, who was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1989, said people who are diagnosed have to decide to overcome the obstacles and discrimination.
“You either want to live or die,” said Wilson, 48, of Durham. “If you want to live, go ahead and live your life. Continue what you do every day and don’t let that be an issue.”