Raising Awareness and Breaking Stigmas About HIV and AIDS

By Briana Vannozzi

In 2007 Polly Jones got the life-changing diagnosis.

“I was AIDS diagnosed. My T-cell level was 106 and he told me that I had to go on medication or I’d be dead in three months,” she said.

She did, and lived to tell the story. But her former partner, from whom she contracted the virus, did not. The scenario is one that could be preventable thanks to a little blue pill called Truvada. It’s an antiretroviral drug that few know about.

“Truvada is a medication used to treat HIV and AIDS,” said Lena Coakley, Director of Nursing at Broadway House. “It’s also used as a prep treatment which is the pre-exposure prophylaxis.”

If taken daily, the risk of HIV is reduced by up to 92 percent for the most vulnerable; Young gay men of color, African American women and IV drug users are considered high risk.

“There was a study conducted over a two and a half year period where the participants remained HIV negative over that two and a half year period,” Coakley said.

But a newly released study from the CDC shows a third of all primary care physicians have never heard of it.

“We had a client last month who went to his doctor in Montclair and asked for the drug and the doctor refused to prescribe it and recommended that he go to an infectious disease doctor,” said Kathy O’Brien.

O’Brien is the executive director for Hyacinth, an AIDS service organization.

“I think it’s just a general lack of awareness on the primary care physician. They’ve always booted it over to the infectious disease doctor. So it often falls on the infectious disease doctor to prescribe, but if you’re getting preventative services that happens at primary care level, not the infectious disease level. I think that’s the biggest challenge that we face,” she said.

In New Jersey about 1,300 people test positive each year and about 1.2 million Americans across the country are living with HIV.

HIV can be controlled with the right medical treatment and care. At Hyacinth more than 1,500 clients are served each year and reach more than 15,000 through preventative services.

“We have prevention programs in six cities throughout the state. We do targeted outreach to the at-risk populations, and we are knocking door to door to find people we can test,” O’Brien said.

Polly feels there’s still a stigma attached to talking about your status, or asking for preventative services. She says if more people become educated, they’d jump at the chance to stay safe and lead a normal life. Polly recently married a man she met at Hyacinth.

“I actually asked him to get engaged here, because I wanted other people to see that just because you have the virus you can get married, and be happy. You don’t have to be alone,” she said.

They’re hoping that the best years are still to come.