“Fear, shame, guilt, disappointment — even thoughts of suicide.”
That’s how Abraham Johnson, a Savannah State University student, describes his reaction when diagnosed with HIV.
Johnson, 21, has posted a video about his experience with HIV and his feelings about it, as part of a national campaign (#SpeakOutHIV) in which young gay men speak out about their disease.
“There are some journeys in life that we take that we sometimes do not want to,’’ Johnson says at the beginning of the video. “For me, my journey was having HIV.”
He did the video, he told GHN, to help others and to show that “having HIV isn’t the end.”
The video campaign comes from Greater Than AIDS, a national public information program, co-founded by the Kaiser Family Foundation, that aims to increase knowledge, confront the stigmatizing of infected people and promote actions to prevent the spread of the disease.
The videos encourage people to break the silence around HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
That silence still surrounds the disease, despite the increase in HIV diagnoses in Georgia and nationally. The virus is spread mainly through unsafe sexual practices and by drug abusers’ use of contaminated needles.
Nationally, new HIV infections are rising among young gay men. Yet a recent Kaiser Foundation survey of gay and bisexual men found that many say HIV is not a topic that comes up often, if at all, even with those closest to them.
Three-quarters say they “rarely” or “never” discuss HIV with friends, and large shares report not talking much about the disease with casual sexual partners (50 percent) or with long-term partners (60 percent).
More than half (56 percent) say no doctor has ever recommended they get tested for HIV, and six in 10 (61 percent) say they rarely or never discuss HIV when they visit their doctor.
Overall, the survey of gay and bisexual men found that though HIV/AIDS is named as the No. 1 health issue facing their population, a majority are not personally concerned about becoming infected, and relatively few report having been tested recently.
“The survey shows there’s a tremendous opportunity to raise awareness of these issues,’’ says Liz Hamel, the Kaiser Foundation’s director of public opinion and survey research.
Georgia has a high HIV/AIDS rate. More than 50,000 Georgians have the disease, with two-thirds living in metro Atlanta. About half of new HIV infections in the state are occurring in youth 16 to 24 years old.
And while African-Americans make up about 30 percent of Georgia’s population, they represent 77 percent of new AIDS cases in Georgia and 63 percent of all existing AIDS cases in Atlanta.
Yet more than half of Georgians with HIV are not currently in treatment, health officials say.
No time for complacency
Johnson says he contracted the disease at 18, and is now “virally suppressed’’ through drug treatment.
AIDS was generally fatal in the 1980s, but since then much progress has been made in limiting the progression of the disease, allowing many HIV-infected people to live long, productive lives. Still, the virus remains dangerous, and preventing its spread is a public health priority.
There’s a great deal of stigmatizing of HIV sufferers in the African-American community, he adds. The videos “allow people to break the stigma of this’’ and help persuade people to get tested and, if they are diagnosed with the virus, to get them into treatment, Johnson says.
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, says the Greater than AIDS campaign’s strength is in raising general awareness about the disease.
“They have created a strong brand and have made great use of local advocates and people living with HIV/AIDS for their work in Georgia,’’ Graham says. “For many years they have been the only public education campaign in the metro Atlanta area, so that has definitely made a difference.”
Graham adds that he would like to see great local efforts “to spread the word that our state is still in crisis when it comes to the spread of HIV, especially among young gay and bisexual men and transgender women.”
Johnson says he did the video to help educate people about HIV.
“It allows people to see there’s life after this,’’ he told GHN in a recent interview. “You can go on and be successful and do whatever God has in store for you.”