Last Modified: Friday, November 30, 2012 10:14 PM
HIV/AIDS was first detected in the United States some three decades ago, and through the years several things surrounding the virus have changed, the executive director of the Southwest Louisiana AIDS Council said.
Nearly 1,015 people in Southwest Louisiana are living with HIV/AIDS and 572 are living with AIDS, according to the Louisiana HIV/AIDS Surveillance quarterly report. Statewide, 18,684 people are living with HIV/AIDS and 10,157 with AIDS.
Terry Estes said when the virus first came about, there was an intense fear in people because it was unknown how they could become infected, and there was a stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.
One of the major changes surrounding the virus is the survival rate and treatment.
“It’s not an automatic death sentence,” Estes said. “A lot of progress has been made in terms of drug therapy and it has become more manageable.”
In years past, people would have to take “handfuls” of pills, she said, but today the virus can be managed with two pills and if tested early enough people can still live quality lives.
A problem that persists, despite the advancement in medicine, is the challenge to get people to get tested.
“One of the major problems that we see is that people will go to the emergency room for other issues and they get tested there and find out they have AIDS,” Estes said. “By then these people are usually at a late-stage diagnosis and that becomes more challenging to manage. We want to catch people as early in the disease as possible.”
Estes said as education has gotten better throughout the years, but it’s become somewhat of a “double-edged sword.”
“I’ve always been concerned that we have done too good of a job convincing people that they don’t have to die if they test positive for HIV/AIDS,” she said. “Younger generations don’t typically have the fear that older generations did. They tend to think of AIDS in the same way of sexually transmitted diseases. In some ways, people don’t fear it as much as they should because you can still die from AIDS.”
Estes said young people now have also become more invincible in thinking they cannot contract the virus.
“Young people didn’t grow up with the fear and the history of AIDS,” she said. “They tend to think they are too young and that they can’t get HIV/AIDS. There’s a big invincibility factor there.”
Estes said transmission of the virus through blood transfusions have been eliminated over time, because blood banks now test blood.
Thomas Burgess, SLAC case manager, said despite advances in medicine, education and prevention, there is still a stigma surrounding the virus.
“There is still so much stigma about HIV/AIDS being a gay disease or a black disease. Even 30 years down the road it’s still viewed as that and associated with being a gay disease because of socioeconomic issues,” he said.
According to the state HIV/AIDS quarterly report, 68 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS statewide are black and 50 percent are homosexual, but the virus still affects heterosexuals and other races.
“The stigma surrounding the virus also presents a challenge for people getting tested or receiving treatment,” Burgess said. “It impacts people coming in to get tested because they don’t want to be seen at the clinic or to be seen going to get tested. We are a state of late testers. Over half of the people getting tested in Louisiana are getting tested in late stages of the virus.”
Estes said although there have been leaps and bounds made in educating the population, there are still people who fear the virus and aren’t aware of how it’s transmitted.
“It’s a very fragile virus,” she said. “It doesn’t survive outside of the body and people still sometimes think it can be transmitted through saliva but it takes nearly 500 gallons of saliva to transmit it.”
SLAC will hold a World AIDS Day memorial service at 6 p.m. tonight at Warren Methodist Church, 1800 Orchid St.
“We always take the day to remember all of the people that we have lost, and to celebrate lives too,” Estes said. “It’s also a big deal for us too because it’s a recommitment on our part to say that we aren’t going to give up fighting until we stop this virus, and we want to commit to keeping the promise to continue this work on behalf of the people we have lost.”