By David Cruz
Newark has always — and still does — lead the state in HIV/AIDS cases. In 2012, there were more than 14,000 Newarkers living with the disease. That’s close to 70 percent of the cases, statewide. As the program manager for the counseling and testing department at the North Jersey Community Research Initiative, Dr. Eddie Jumper has seen HIV/AIDS go from a community crisis to something of an afterthought, today. He says there is a major misconception about the disease.
“The misconception is, because there are medications out there and people are living a lot longer, and that we’ve won the battle,” he said, “but we haven’t won the battle. We’re still fighting. The war is still ahead of us, and we’re fighting each and every day to find a cure.”
Across the country, there are 56,000 new HIV infections every year. Half of those new cases are men of color. But that’s just the number of cases that are reported. The real crisis, says Jumper, is the countless others who may be engaging in high-risk activity — like unprotected sex and sharing needles — who just don’t know their HIV status. He says this year’s message is as it has always been.
“Get tested,” he admonished. “Know your status because knowledge is power and it gives us power to protect ourselves and to protect our families from HIV and AIDS.”
North Jersey Community Research Initiative CEO Brian McGovern repeated the message. “If you know your status, you can do something about it,” he said. “If you’re negative or positive, now you can have a plan of how do I make myself healthier; how do I keep myself negative; how do I protect others from getting positive; how do I keep myself healthy as a positive individual?”
Paula Tate has been conducting HIV tests for 15 years, back when it took two weeks to get results. Today? It takes about 15 minutes and one drop of blood, as we found out this morning for our own HIV test in one of the NJCRI mobile units.
“Some people don’t want to know their status and sometimes people are misinformed about how the test is done,” she said. “It’s painless. It’s just a prick of your finger. You get the blood and that’s it. Some people are afraid of needles so they figure we have to draw blood and say, ‘I don’t want to take the test because I don’t like needles.’”
It is in fact, quite painless. The test itself takes seconds and is anonymous. For some, the results are a call to action, for others a major relief. No one here is harboring the delusion that one event will change habits and attitudes among high-risk groups, but if a dozen people get tested today, that’s a dozen people who are now empowered.
HIV/AIDS is not the death sentence that it used to be. Medical advancements have made living with the virus quite common, but the first critical step is to get tested because knowing your status is the best way to maintain your health.