When Gordon Thomas learned he was HIV positive, he was told he would live just two more 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 the human immunodeficiency virus that attacks the body’s immune system and can cause AIDS. 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 lessened in some cases, Thomas and others said, but it persists.
“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 on Hunt Street to observe World AIDS Day. The Partnership for a Healthy Durham’s HIV/STI Committee and its partners held the event to celebrate progress, to recognize those who have lost their lives and to push for continued improvements.
“It is up to us to take this opportunity on World AIDS Day to create a call for action that people take advantage of evidence-based science” that can make living with AIDS and HIV a quality experience, said Gayle Harris, Durham County’s Public Health director.
Harris urged the crowd to help achieve a goal of fewer cases by:
▪ Getting a routine HIV test and urging their friends to also do so.
▪ Asking health-care providers about medications that prevent HIV infections and safe sex practices.
▪ Teaching children about preventing HIV.
▪ Lobbying elected officials for more funding for HIV programs.
“The time to act is now,” Harris said.
HIV is spread through direct contact with certain body fluids, such as blood and semen. In the U.S., HIV is spread mainly by having unprotected sex with someone who is infected and sharing needles and other items used to inject drugs.
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.
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.
“If we are aggressive about testing, hopefully we will find more people who are positive,” she said. “The fact is the sooner that we bring folks into care they will benefit because the treatments are absolutely outstanding these days.”
One in eight people living with HIV don’t know it, 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.”
Free HIV Testing Locations
▪ Durham County Department of Public Health; 414 E. Main St.; 919-560-8819; Monday to Friday 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Tuesday until 6 p.m.
▪ Lincoln Community Health Center; 1301 Fayetteville St.; 919-956-4000; Monday 5-7 p.m.
▪ CAARE Incorporated; 214 Broadway St.; 919-683-5300; Monday to Friday 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
▪ Triangle Empowerment Center; 1415 Holloway St.; 800-806-3558; Wednesday 6-9 p.m.; In-home testing available.
▪ Samaritan Health Center; 507 E. Knox St.; 919-688-9641; Free for uninsured.
▪ Holton Wellness Center; 401 N. Driver St.; 919-530-8210; Every second Tuesday 2-4 p.m.
Questions about HIV
Q: Why is Durham’s rate so high compared to other counties?
A: From 2012 to 2014, Durham had an average 23.5 new HIV cases per 100,000 people per year. In 2014, Durham had 66 new HIV cases compared to 70 in 2013 and 67 in 2012. Edgecombe County had the highest rate, followed by Mecklenburg.
We couldn’t find someone who could give a clear answer about why Durham’s rate was higher than other areas in the state.
Dr. Arlene Seña, medical director for the Durham County Department of Public Health, said there are many individual and societal factors that contribute to the rates of HIV and sexually transmitted infections in the South. Infection rates are highest among young adults ages 20 to 29 and blacks, compared to whites or Hispanics overall. Specifically, men who have sex with men are at highest risk for STIs/HIV infections. The individual factors include risky behaviors such as unprotected sex, having multiple partners and use of recreational drugs. Social factors include poverty, access to care and peer influences.
Q:What are the demographics of living of people living with HIV and AIDS in the state?
A: According to a N.C. Department of Health and Human Services report, there were 28,526 cases in the state as of Dec. 31, 2014. Blacks accounted for 64.8 percent of those cases (or a rate of 844 per 100,000 African Americans), followed by whites (25.2 percent or a rate of 208 per 100,000 whites) and Hispanics (6.5 percent or a rate of 111 per 100,000 Hispanics). About 47.5 percent of the cases were associated with the risk category of from men having sex with men; 38.7 percent were linked to heterosexual encounters; 9.2 percent were linked to injection drug use.
Q: Can medications help prevent the spread of HIV?
A: Yes. Medications can help individuals live a nearly normal life span, as well as help prevent HIV-positive individuals from transmitting the infection. Medications can also help prevent high-risk individuals from becoming HIV positive.
“The goal for an HIV positive individual is that their viral load is suppressed to a level that is undetectable,” said Lee Storrow, NC AIDS Action Network’s executive director. “And if that occurs then they will not transmit HIV to another individual.”