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Symposium offers free HIV testing in Union to fight stigma

“I went to a church function and we were getting tested for HIV and AIDS. Me and my oldest son had come back positive. We had to go to Baltimore to get retested and that weekend before we had gone to Baltimore, I cried out and prayed to God that he would just give it all to me and let my son come back negative,” Vick-Lewis said.

“I don’t know how it worked out but he answered my prayers and the doctor came back and told me that I was positive and my son was negative.”

Vick-Lewis said she started speaking about HIV after she and her friend went to an HIV gala. Her friend did not know that Vick-Lewis was HIV-positive at the time.

“I was just sitting there and God was nudging me to just get up and talk and right before it was over I got up and spoke,” Vick-Lewis said. “I joined Sisters for Sister out of Washington, D.C. and I got up there and spoke for them and I’ve been speaking ever since.”

Vick-Lewis was one of three HIV patients who told their stories at the morning session of the Symposium, which was organized by the Center for AIDS Research and the Institute of Global Health and Infectious Diseases.

The Symposium was held at the Bioinformatics Building, where several speakers discussed HIV care, cures and research.

“In the ’80s there was an amazing amount of loss and struggle around HIV so originally I think (World AIDS day) was created to unite people and consciousness about what HIV was and testing and protection,” said Dani Strauss, the community outreach coordinator at the UNC Center for AIDS Research.

“Now we use it as a day to combat stigma and educate ourselves about what’s happening in the field in terms of research and also in terms of communities.”

Morag MacLachlan, spokesperson for the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, said people are always asking why researchers are looking for a cure when HIV has become similar to a chronic disease.

“It’s a chronic disease like diabetes because people are taking one pill a day and are undetectable, but the problem with that is you are taking one pill for the rest of your life and there can be complications, so a cure is needed,” MacLachlan said. “The cure is needed not only for people’s health, it’s that there is still such stigma attached to this.”

Free HIV testing was available in the Great Hall of the Student Union. The tests were paid for by the state and provided results in 20 minutes. The testing was conducted in part by the Student Health Action Coalition, a free clinic that provides HIV testing every Wednesday in Chapel Hill. They recommend people get tested for HIV and AIDS every year.

The test consisted of a mouth swab that was then tested for HIV antibodies. After 20 minutes of waiting, individuals were called into separate conference rooms to discuss results, prevention and information about HIV and how it is contracted.

“These things happen. Not only to just gay men or the gay world. It’s happening everywhere and there are so many students that are probably positive now and don’t know it,” Vick-Lewis said. “I would recommend students to definitely get tested.”

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