CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Nearly four decades after the words "gay cancer" were heard on television newscasts across the United States, fear and misinformation no longer lead the HIV conversation. Medication and scientific breakthroughs have allowed people to live perfectly normal lives with a positive diagnosis.
But the stigma associated with those three letters is still prevalent.
Catherine Kamara was born with HIV. But she didn't know it until she got pregnant at 16.
“The doctors asked if I wanted to get tested for everything. I was like sure, why not, I mean I don’t have anything,” she said.
It didn't take long for Catherine to learn news of her positive HIV diagnosis. Her stepmother didn't seem surprised.
“She automatically said, 'oh, she was born with it,'” Catherine said.
Everyone around her had known. At that moment, Catherine felt alone and betrayed.
“The people I thought cared for me, loved me and wanted me to do well in life lied. Like when I heard those three letters come out of my doctor’s mouth, it was like a huge explosion in my head,” she said.
Catherine later learned both of her birth parents had died from AIDS. But her main concern was the child she was carrying.
“I was like, nobody will ever want me, nobody will ever want to marry me, or people will shun me. For a very long time I was not sexually active at all. Because I was scared. And the thought of me transferring it to my child scared me even more,” she said.
Catherine’s baby was born HIV negative. She admits it took her some time to get over the shame and embarrassment that came along with her diagnosis. Now, she helps others do that at RAIN, a Charlotte non-profit working to overcome the stigma surrounding HIV.
Chelsea Gulden is HIV positive and RAIN’s Vice President of Operations. They just celebrated their 25th anniversary.
“Who we are as an organization now is very different than who we used to be. We started as an organization that was helping people die with dignity, people who were diagnosed with HIV, and we’ve really transformed as the epidemic has transformed,” she said.
The HIV battle has improved over the decades. While it can’t be completely cured, a patient can become “undetectable” with the help of Anti-Retroviral Therapy. The HIV virus attacks a person's immune cells and multiplies. But daily medication can reduce viral loads to the point where they’re unable to transfer the virus to a sexual partner.
“We still encounter people that their family is still making them eat off of paper plates and use plastic spoons. There are people that think you can get it from kissing. We still encounter people that think it’s a gay disease. It is stigma but it’s also fear, I think stigma is really heavily rooted in fear,” Gulden said.
Laurenzo Surrell-Page is a gay man living with a positive HIV diagnosis. He works at RAIN and helps teens struggling with their diagnosis.
Getting past a stigma has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. His adoptive parents weren’t always accepting of his lifestyle, especially his mom.
“There was a point where she was praying the gay away, and I was getting phone calls, are you still struggling with homosexuality,” he said.
While living in Houston in 2015, Laurenzo tested positive for HIV. He felt as if he had to come out to his family twice.
“Just like as in coming out that you’re gay, it's the fear of I’m coming out to my family and telling them that I’m HIV positive, not knowing how they would respond. We hear stories of people disowning their kids,” Laurenzo said.
His parents didn’t do that. In fact, Laurenzo and his mother now travel the country to speak about his diagnosis.
“For her to not approve of my life choices, she respects me. And that’s pretty cool because I didn’t get that when I was younger,” he said.
Laurenzo takes one pill a day to keep his viral levels low and like Catherine, his HIV is now undetectable.
“It’s really not hard to manage. I think the biggest thing is the stigma and having to deal with people who don't understand what undetectable is, or they don't understand the difference between HIV and AIDS,” he said.
As of 2016, there were more than 6,630 people living with HIV in Mecklenburg County, and that only includes the people who were diagnosed here. This year, the county will spend nearly $10 million on HIV prevention, testing and education endeavors.
One of their newest projects will push greater access to PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, which can protect a negative person from contracting HIV.
Mecklenburg County Health Department Director Gibbie Harris says they’ll roll out the initiative with their community partners in the coming months.
“It’s a medication that people take if they’re high-risk that prevents them from becoming infected. 90 to 99 percent effective for people who are involved in risky sexual behavior and the upper 70s for people who are injecting drugs,” Harris said.
In the county, the highest rates of HIV are found in the areas where 20% or more of the population lives in poverty.
“Place matters in terms of your health. So, where you live, whether you are living in poverty, whether you have sufficient housing,” she said.