Outlook for AIDS patients changes, but stigma remains for some

In a simple warm house with a welcoming front porch, people with HIV are finding a helping hand in Centre County.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 36.9 million people are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, worldwide. One million of these cases have been diagnosed in the United States.

According to the AIDS Resource Alliance, a local nonprofit organization that provides financial relief and emotional support to individuals living with HIV and AIDS, there are 35,033 documented cases in Pennsylvania.

36.9 million Number of diagnosed cases of people living with HIV

1 million Number of people with HIV in U.S.

35,033 Number of people with HIV in Pennsylvania

The organization put a welcome sign on its door back in 2012.

AR opened in Lycoming County and now assists clients in Centre, Clinton, Snyder, Union and Potter counties.

According to a report published in 2013, at the time, there had been a total of 239 cases of people living with the virus that causes HIV and AIDS in Centre County.

Of that number, 174 people were reported alive and 65 people had died.

65 The number of persons with HIV in Centre County who had died as of 2013

“In the beginning there was not a lot of great medications, or treatment options,” and a lot of the group’s work was based on helping people try to “live their life with it.” Nowadays, “we are able to offer a lot of different services” because people are living longer, said Erik Fetter, director of the Centre County chapter of AR.

“The big thing we do here is case management,” Fetter said. “We enable our clients to access medications, afford utilities and access other financial resources,” Fetter said.

“Funding is limited and we don’t want to be wasteful. If somebody doesn’t have insurance, we get them set up with a program called SPBP, the Special Pharmaceutical Benefits Program,” and then they are able to get their medication for free.

The organization helps anyone who walks through the door connect to medical professionals.

Clients are also able to get emotional support at a weekly meeting that brings together HIV-positive members of the community to share their experiences and ally with one another.

AR’s welcome sign doesn’t only extend to those who are living with HIV or AIDS. They’ve made a commitment to offering free HIV and STD testing, along with free one-on-one classes that cover basic information about the HIV virus and ways to mitigate contracting it.

They give out free condoms and bleach kits along with brochures and magazines that discuss HIV, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted infections.

Tuesday was World AIDS Day. The day is traditionally dedicated to raising money and awareness, along with eliminating stigma by encouraging people to get tested.

And that hasn’t always been easy.

Because of the lack of education on AIDS, discrimination, fear, panic, and lies surrounded me.

Ryan White, early AIDS poster child

According to AVERT, one of the first charities that attempted to educate people about HIV and AIDS, there is still “a lot of fear that persists today.”

Just last month, Charlie Sheen announced his HIV-positive status live on the “Today” show with Matt Lauer and was publicly roasted on Twitter and Instagram as users erupted with a host of memes, making light of his HIV status.

The classification and lack of knowledge concerning the disease, who it affected and how it could be treated created a lot of fear and stigma that is still rampant today, despite many success stories for those on the front lines, living with the virus, battling HIV and AIDS.

Rae Lewis-Thornton, an HIV-positive, Emmy Award-winning AIDS activist living in Chicago, is one of them.

Lewis-Thornton has been living with the virus for more than 20 years.

On World AIDS Day, she shared this message on her blog:

“Today is World AIDS Day! A day of remembrance for those we lost to this disease. But also a day to fight stigma that blames and shames those living with #HIV world wide! It’s a time to demand treatment for all and work toward ZERO infections! Tell someone you know with #HIV that you love and support them! Text, hit them up on social media, Call or drop by their house but just do it!”

Fetter agrees that the shaming and blaming should stop, saying, “it’s a virus, it doesn’t care who you are, about your sexual orientation, your race, your ethnicity, it has nothing to do with it,” he said. “It’s not something that’s thinking,” but “what can you do, there’s still that stigma. We try to fight it as much as we can, especially in the younger generations, because that’s the generation that shouldn’t have any fear.”

For information on volunteering or fundraising for AIDS Resource Alliance, visit www.aidsresource.com.

Jalelah Ahmed: 814-231-4631, @jalelahahmed