SAN JOSE, CA –It’s not necessarily a rainbow with a pot of gold. But the medications available now for those living with HIV can mean a world of difference to people like Bob Reed. As World AIDS Day approaches its 20th year on Dec. 1, the San Jose man reflects on the devastating disease that changed his life.
To memorialize and recognize the setbacks and progress of AIDS, Santa Clara County will acknowledge this week with sections of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on display through the week, a candlelight vigil Thursday night and a “Getting to Zero” celebration Friday night. Reed plans to attend.
While having his blood drawn, Reed was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, a few years after Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) started wreaking havoc in the gay community in major metropolitan cities. It was even called the “gay disease.” AIDS is the condition, while HIV is the virus that may cause an infection. Reed’s HIV has led to full-blown AIDS.
“I’ve been really sick,” Reed told Patch. “It was terrifying. I thought I was going to die.”
That said, the man who’s on the Santa Clara County HIV Commission has enjoyed an epiphany of sorts in the last few months. The county’s goal of zero new cases of HIV/AIDS seems attainable with new drugs designed to prevent and reduce transmission to others down to nil.
“This has had a profound impact on me — to no longer be contagious. That took such a weight off my shoulders that I can’t describe,” he said.
The experience also reduces the stigma, which has plagued those afflicted as much as the disease itself. Sons were disowned, people were shunned, discrimination ran rampant, life savings were swallowed and friends and family members got to unwillingly see their loved ones slowly wither away.
When Reed reached a crescendo in his recovery, he fell apart in a melancholic release of relief and sadness from the tragedy he witnessed.
“I cried for three days. I thought about all my friends who died in the last three decades. It was the first time I felt like I made it through the epidemic,” he said.
He’s reassured that in entering a new era word is getting out the treatment can prevent the spread and symptoms of the disease.
It’s a stunning breakthrough in the world of health science, STD Controller Sarah Lewis of the Santa Clara County Public Health Department pointed out in what she calls new “powerful tools” to fend off and fight the disease.
Lewis contends health officials refrain from being complacent, but at the same time, they were more optimistic than ever before about getting to the county’s “Getting to Zero” goal.
“We’re continuing to keep HIV in the front of our minds. We have a daily prescription to prevent HIV,” Lewis said, referring to medication called PrEP. Drugs are now deemed to reduce transmission down to an undetectable level.
“That way they can’t pass it onto their partners,” the doctor said.
The county is ensuring no one who needs these drugs goes without through programs funded in federal, state and local jurisdictions.
The HIV epidemic has stabilized in Santa Clara County since the mid 2000s, with 3,361 people known to be diagnosed and living with HIV/AIDS as of 2017. Blacks and Latino residents are disproportionately affected now, with the former harboring rates over four times higher than levels among non-Hispanic whites, the county reports.
In 2017, 156 new cases were listed — up from 135 the previous year.
Still, the low numbers represent a rebuke of decades marked by lesions and less hope.
The lifespan among people living with HIV is dramatically different than the last say 20 years ago. In the last two years, over 90 percent of people newly diagnosed with HIV in the county were connected to care within three months of their diagnosis.
For those wanting to reach out, share and reflect with others are welcome to attend a candlelight vigil at 6 p.m. at San Jose City Hall at East Santa Clara St. and a “Getting to Zero” celebration at the Santa Clara County Government Center in the James P. McEntee Plaza in San Jose — where a section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt will remain on display until 5 p.m. Friday.
A moving exhibit, the memorial quilt was conceived by Cleve Jones of the Names Project in 1985. In June 1987, a group of strangers gathered at a San Francisco shop to begin the project that represents a collective of hand-stitched panels made by friends, lovers and family members. Each 3-by-6-foot panel serves as a touching tribute to 48,000 who have succumbed to AIDS.
On Oct. 11, the quilt featuring 1,920 panels stretched over a space larger than a football field in the National Mall in Washington, D.C. during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
For more information on Santa Clara County’s programs, go to https://www.sccgov.org/sites/.
–Image courtesy of Raj Gill of Santa Clara Public Health Department