AIDS, arguably the scariest disease of this generation, turned 30 this year. We have come a long way and the virus may no longer be a death sentence if it is caught and treated early.
But there are places right here in Chicago where the epidemic is finding new life - and death.
“There are populations or communities in Chicago that,” CPS Director of HIV Education and Prevention Ira Rounsaville said, “their HIV rates unfortunately um rank up there with sub-Saharan Africa, where the HIV rates are the greatest in the world.”
Black youth are fueling those numbers. That's part of the reason why CPS created Rounsaville’s position.
He knows the hot spots for the virus are the same places plagued with violence and drop outs: poor, black neighborhoods dominate the top 20 community areas where the rate of new HIV diagnoses is going up.
Of about 2500 new cases between 2008 and 2009, 555 were among youth ages 13 – 24. Their rates doubled over a decade, and 71 percent of them were black.
“There's so much shame centered around it that one of the things we actually need in order to combat HIV in our communities,” Louis Spraggins of the South Side Help Center said, “is strong folks who are willing to say, ‘I am HIV positive, this is how I got it, this is how you can avoid it yourself.’ People don't want to do that.”
Louis Spraggins, 22, is one of those people willing to share his status as HIV positive. In his work with the Help Center, people can see how good he looks and sounds, and how strong his message is - it has to be.
Spraggins said the stigma is so strong among African Americans that people don't even want to be seen getting tested. I decided I would be seen getting tested.
"It’s incredibly hard to get people who want to get tested, number one,” Iseatta Walton said.
The new Walgreens store in Chatham was offering free HIV testing that day, and a chance to win a signed basketball from Magic Johnson, plus concert tickets from local radio station soul 106 - all trying to entice black teenagers to the test.
Turned out I had something in common with the woman who performed my test.
Both of us lost a brother to AIDS, back when the HIV virus was still a certain killer. My brother Greg was diagnosed in 1985, just two years after scientists finally identified the virus Walton is not sure how long her brother kept the secret.
“He asked me to leave the room,” Walton said. “He obviously did not want to say it in front of me, and when I came back in my mother said, ‘Your brother has AIDS.’”
Since her brother's death, Walton has devoted her life to battling the virus. She counsels and tests hundreds of people -- because HIV is spread by people who don't know they have it.
“Without knowing,” Walton said, “you are potentially killing yourself and others.”
Most of the time, the results are negative, like mine. But even when Walton has to deliver the bad news, it's not like it used to be.
Today, no one has to die from HIV. With early diagnosis, the new treatments can keep the virus from ever becoming full blown AIDS. For Magic Johnson, twenty years later, the virus virtually undetectable.
“He takes his medicine, his regimen of medications, he eats well, and he takes care of himself, just like if I had it, I would and anyone else, to increase longevity of life,” Walton said. “Magic has no magic!”
“Folks still have the perception that you can tell what a person who has HIV looks like, and this is just another major misconception,” Spraggins said. “I'm going to live my whole lifespan. I'm going to live long enough to make a positive impact in the world in which I live.”
Rounsaville recommends visiting the CPS resource website Sex-Ed Loop to get information about making healthy sexual choices. He said it is a place where young people can stay connected, ask questions and get answers about sexual health.
Everyone can also text "yes" to 48510 to schedule a free HIV test, brought to Chicago by The Bridge Project. This organization serves the South Shore, Chatham, Avalon, Englewood, Woodlawn, and Washington Park communities.
How would you relate to someone who is HIV positive? Would you date that person, or hire them?
It's not something people like to talk about, but avoiding "uncomfortable" questions about HIV and AIDS is a disaster for young people.
On this World AIDS Day, Chicago public schools had some 6,000 students at 70 campuses take part in the first ever simulcast on HIV/AIDS.
I was with students at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, and there was some snickering when the video showed the condom demonstration. But the information did seem to hit home.
FOX Chicago News posed the question on Facebook: Would you date, or hire someone with HIV?
Everyone said no, they would not date someone with HIV, but yes, they would hire them.
Replacing the nonsense with good sense and facts before young people are sexually active is crucial. Just as important is convincing people to say yes to the test.
The head of an agency that offers free testing in stricken communities in Chicago told me it's an up-hill battle.
“There's a lot of hope for that, for ending HIV,” Beyond Care’s Carlos Meyers said. “All the pieces to the puzzle are there, it's just now it needs to be put together. the community really needs to step up and advocate for it, the conversations need to be held on a one-on-one basis between people about getting tested, about knowing their status and about getting into care, cause that's where it's really important, getting and staying in care if you are infected.”
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