This past week, the CCPE team attended the Unity 2017 conference in Indianapolis, which focused on HIV and STD prevention, care and treatment. Not only did we get to meet a ton of amazing people from across the state working in HIV prevention and care, we also learned quite a bit too.
The most amazing part for me was the fact that we got to interact with people who remember living through and being affected by the AIDS epidemic.
I was born right around the time protease inhibitors were developed and mass produced, which meant by the time I was able to actually understand what the issue was, it was pretty well under control in the U.S.
Yes, we still lose thousands of people each year to HIV/AIDS, but it’s nothing like what it used to be. The life expectancy for someone with HIV is now more than twice as much as it was when I was born, which is absolutely amazing and speaks volumes for the researchers and scientists who developed these drugs.
But hearing the stories of everyone around me was so eye opening. I have obviously read about the epidemic before and seen documentaries, but it’s still not as educational as actually sitting down and talking with people who lived through it. Almost all knew at least one person who had died as a result of the disease. Several knew Ryan White personally.
For me, the most interesting thing was seeing how many people at this conference were HIV positive. Some were diagnosed in the early 80s, before ART, and managed to fight long enough until the drugs developed and they could reach viral suppression. But what struck me was how I honestly would have never known they have HIV.
I’ve been working in HIV prevention for a year and a half now in Monroe County, and have only come into contact with a handful of people who are HIV positive. Obviously, I understand that people can live perfectly healthy normal lives after being diagnosed with HIV.
But for some reason, it was amazing to see dozens of HIV positive people in a crowd of a couple hundred who looked, frankly, just like the rest of us. It never even crossed my mind that anyone at the conference would be HIV positive, outside of the plenary speaker and diving legend, Greg Louganis.
But there they were, these HIV positive people, from all walks of life, happy and healthy and excited to be a part of this amazing conference that brings together people who are dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS.
This experience helped ground me and remind me that we can never truly judge a book by it’s cover. We don’t always know the struggles someone has been through, or is currently going through, unless they want us to. And just because someone has HIV doesn’t mean they will be defined by that diagnosis for the rest of their life. Like I said, I never would have known had they not stood up when asked how many people were HIV positive.