Rita McDaniel, a community organizer with the NC AIDS Action Network, has been living with HIV for 29 years.
She said she wants people to know that HIV is not a death sentence.
“You can live a long healthy life with HIV as long as you take medication and get educated about the stigma," she said.
Southern HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, founded by the Southern AIDS Coalition in 2019, was celebrated Aug. 20 to help spark conversations about HIV and reduce the stigma surrounding the virus in the South.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV is a virus that damages the immune system and affects how the body fights infection. If HIV is not treated, it can lead to AIDS.
An infected person may have flu-like symptoms within 2 to 4 weeks of contracting HIV. However, some people exhibit no symptoms, which is why getting tested is the only way to confirm.
According to a 2020 report from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, about 34,963 people who are living with HIV reside in North Carolina. This includes people who were initially diagnosed in another state.
A 2022 HIV and STD report by the NCDHHS showed that 375 people were newly diagnosed with HIV this year and 129 were newly diagnosed with AIDS.
McDaniel noted that people of color in North Carolina are disproportionality impacted by HIV. In 2020, a NCDHHS report showed that the highest rate of newly diagnosed HIV infection in the state was in adult and adolescent Black men.
"Stigma is what's really killing us," she said. "It's not the disease itself, it's stigma – so we have to live, as a community, with the fear of somebody finding out if you're not ready to disclose that you're HIV positive."
In her work, McDaniel provides education on preventive measures against HIV, including pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
When used as prescribed, PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV through sex by about 99 percent and by injection drug use by at least 74 percent, according to the CDC.
LaToya Murchison, an advocate for people with HIV, said she also lives with HIV. She is based in Moore County where she said that HIV is not talked about much – especially due to a lack of resources.
“The only resource that we have is the local hospital and we don't have any support groups or anything like that in my area," Murchison said. "So you don't have a way to really talk about it.”
She added that she uses social media to conduct her advocacy for those with HIV and AIDS, to share her story and to bring awareness to the condition.
Angela Vick-Lewis, another HIV awareness advocate, also said she had been diagnosed with HIV and emphasized the importance of getting tested.
“Know what your status is because they have all kinds of things out here now for HIV to keep you protected,” she said.
Through medication, Vick-Lewis said she has undetectable status, which means she doesn’t have enough of the virus in her bloodstream for her health to be damaged or for the virus to be transmitted to someone else.
According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, daily antiretroviral therapy can reduce the amount of HIV in the bloodstream to minute levels.
The therapy prevents the virus from making copies of itself, which drops the amount of a virus that can be detected in a person with HIV.
Allison Mathews, executive director of the Gilead COMPASS Faith Coordinating Center, works to address HIV-related stigma in Black faith communities in the South. Her research revolves around increasing community engagement for clinical trials.
“So with my center, we are one of four coordinating centers that does the work of training those nonprofit organizations and granting out money to them so that they can do the work,” Mathews said.
She also said there are a lot of advances in HIV medication and research — more than most people realize. As a result, she co-founded HIV Cure Research Day, held on Dec.14, to raise awareness for research being conducted.
“I think that's the future that I want to see is that more intentional efforts are put toward making sure that communities are involved in every step of the way,” Matthews said.
To learn more from the Southern Aids Coalition, visit their website at southernaidscoalition.org.
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