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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
Kai Chandler Lois Crenshaw Gary Paul Wright Fortunata Kasege Keith Green Lois Bates Greg Braxton Vanessa Austin Bernard Jackson

George Burgess

July 2007

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Harm Reduction

So you'd like to see people stop pointing the blame and start focusing on what? Themselves?

Not so much themselves. I think we all have a vested interest. But just start focusing on the solution. What are solutions? Solutions are: the funding needs to be allocated the right way. I think the main issue is housing. We don't have housing. We have HOPWA. But you know, in Atlanta, we're talking about: What is HOPWA doing? There are people still on the streets, people are still struggling. They have to go to three quarter houses, and stuff like that.

Focus on becoming a part of a community advisory board, or CAB. Get to know the science about the medication and how they developed, the phases, the clinical trials. Some are still stuck on the Tuskegee incident. That was then. That's why we need CAB members -- because that's a platform where we can say, "Oh, no, this is not right." Or we can monitor, and stuff like that.

Folks do have other issues, compounded with living with HIV and AIDS. They might need therapy. They need somebody that they can go talk to.

Focus on drug addiction. Drug addiction is another disease. Say, drug addiction -- again, we're looking at the stereotype -- drugs are not just in the African-American community; they are everywhere. They might be different kinds of concoctions, but it's still drugs. Let's focus on how to get folks help. And the real deal is, you can't help them till they want to help themselves. But at least we need to let them know.

Having 11 years clean and sober, I'm a fan of harm reduction. Harm reduction works. It works. It stops you from harming yourself, and it stops you from harming your community and it gives some people the opportunity to network. Every time you engage, every time you get with somebody, every time you stop into a center, that's engaging. That's when you start building trust.

A slow way of detoxing now is by letting them know:

(1) I'm here for you;

(2) let's look at different ways of how you can safely use.

The big controversy in Atlanta is harm reduction. I am one of the few that do a workshop on harm reduction.

Can you define harm reduction for our listeners?

I think, in a nutshell, harm reduction is: continuing to use, and at the same time, accepting where they are as they are using, but encouraging them to lessen the harm to themselves, and to lessen the harm to the community.

It's not about, "Stop using," that's where it gets twisted. It's not the endpoint of, "You're in recovery." Methadone is one of the successes -- I might get hit in the head with that -- as far as harm reduction.

We practice harm reduction every day. When you get in your automobile, what's the first thing you do? Put on a seatbelt. That's harm reduction. When you get a hot cup of coffee from McDonald's, what's the first thing you do? You blow on it. You don't want to burn your mouth. That's harm reduction. We practice it. So why can't we look at it in a bigger scale? Just allowing folks to be where they are.


Being in recovery and working with a good program -- people are not ready until they are ready. You can beat yourself. But again: It's allowing them to come into a center. Just giving them a cup of coffee and talking to them every day. It cuts down on them going in the streets, creating havoc. The more you engage them, the less emergency rooms that they would have to go through.

Just because we're addicts doesn't mean that we're not intelligent. We just need for somebody to turn the switch on. So once you get a moment of clarity, you'll make that decision, whether you want to completely stop or do what you need to do.

Health, Treatment and HIV

I think I could probably talk to you about your activism work and your views on this pretty much all day, but let's move back to your personal life. How has your health been since your HIV diagnosis?

My health has been up and down. I think my biggest concern with my health is my weight. I lose weight, and then I gain it back, and then I lose weight.

That's another thing of being empowered. I had to really take the necessary steps to get a nutritionist. I talk to the nutritionist. Doing simple workouts that I can live with. I am not going to go to the gym and try to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Lee Haney. I'm just going to work out and just tone my body.

I'm actually on my second regimen, which is really good.

What drugs are you on?

Right now I'm on Kaletra [lopinavir/ritonavir], Epivir [lamivudine, 3TC] and Truvada [tenofovir/FTC]. My first regimen was Crixivan [indinavir], AZT [zidovudine, Retrovir], and 3TC. After 11 years, I'm just on my second regimen. I am a strong believer in medication. I believe they work. I do know that people get some severe side effects. Some people get minor side effects. I haven't experienced any real bad side effects other than diarrhea, from Kaletra. That's going back to one of the things that I do -- I'm involved with the clinical trials, and understand the medications and how they are working and stuff like that. Overall, my health is good. I work on my mind, body and spirit. I think recovery has really helped me to get a really good balance.

Why did you switch regimens?

The reason why I switched regimens was, again: Being a treatment educator and understanding medications and stuff like that, when I started losing weight I knew it was from -- well, me and my doctor came to a decision; it was from the Zerit [stavudine, d4t].

Again, side effects, lipodystrophy or lipoatrophy; you can have different side effects. But I was losing a lot of body mass, muscle mass. On top of that, I was losing weight anyway. So we tried to eliminate some of the things that we thought could be the cause of me losing weight. Once I stopped that, once I changed the regimen ... my weight is steady. So it was a good decision to change.

See? That's, again, the challenge. Medications don't work; medications do fail. You can take your medication 96 percent of the time that you're supposed to take it, and it could fail. But the thing is to have a game plan and look at what you can go to next. Early on, we used to talk about sequencing, where you can look at where you want to take your medication.

Molly, my doctor, and I knew what I was going to go on next. Right now, we're looking on what we can go on later on. So that's why I changed. But some people do change because they can't tolerate it anymore.

Other than switching your medications, did you change your health regimen at all? Vitamins or exercise?

Yes. I am talking to a nutritionist, and everything. I had to really change the way I ate. I love fried foods and I am still going to eat fried foods, but I'm going to do it in moderation.

One of the things that we don't talk about a lot in Atlanta is quality of life. I strongly believe in quality of life, so I'm not going to completely stop something that I really like. I love some fried foods. But I do it in moderation. I drink more water. I eat breakfast now. My breakfast is really simple. I have two slices of peanut butter toast with honey and some green tea and that carries me.

Before, I would wait till 11 o'clock. Also I wouldn't eat everything. I have learned how to eat the pastas. That pyramid, that nutrition pyramid; it's lightened up to me now. I understand what to eat and what not to eat. So I think that has helped.

Without the meds, has having hepatitis C changed your treatment and health regimens in any way?

Again, when we're talking about sequence, and looking at medications, you try to look at what's harsher on the liver. I try not to do anything to jeopardize it. Again, one of the good things is that I don't drink or anything like that. I just know that being coinfected, I have to work -- not work extra hard -- I just have to be a little more careful.

I really believe one day I would start hepatitis medications. More people now are dying from hepatitis C than HIV and AIDS. Because of the medications and stuff like that we are living longer. We have become senior citizens in this disease. We're living longer, which lets the hepatitis C start ... you start seeing signs maybe 10 years into the hepatitis C. So we're almost at that point.

I understand that there are different types of hepatitis C. Do you know what type of hepatitis C you have?

I have Hep-2, if I understand the question. I think Hep-2 is predominantly in African Americans and because of that, the regimens are challenging, in that a lot of them do fail. That's another thing I looked at prior to what we were just talking about. Do I want to start a regimen and stuff like that?

Just two more final questions. How has your sex life changed since you were diagnosed? Have you had any sexual partners?

My sex life is good. My sex life is really good. I've counseled people who have said, "Oh, I'm not going to have sex anymore." Why? Or, "I'm not going to have children anymore," which is a different kind of decision. But why?

Do not let this disease stop you from doing things that you have the human right, and the right, to do. I try not to box myself in. I don't try to just be with ladies that are in recovery or are HIV infected. If you are, you are; if you're not, you're not.

We were talking about disclosure. I have learned how to tweak that a little bit. Because, again, I was like a poster boy: "Hey, my name is George and I'm positive. I have AIDS. Do you want to get together?"

They were like, "Wait a minute. What's your name?"

So I'm glad I've learned. I counsel people how to disclose. It's on a need-to-know basis and dating is fun. For me, just because I'm dating you doesn't mean that I want to sleep with you, so I don't have to disclose then. If it gets to that situation, I'll disclose.

But two weeks into dating, people always ask. These are surveys. It's an assessment. "What kind of job do you do?" So it always comes out. "Well, I do this." "Well, why do you do that?" "This is why I do that."

Any final thoughts? Because we are almost out of time.

No. I just hope that this information, would help somebody. Again, I don't want to ever say this is rhetoric. This is not a death sentence. We can live and learn with HIV and AIDS.

I think, again, we need to just be supportive with one another and always remember that quality of life is the most important thing. We are either in-fected or af-fected. But in order to be ef-fective, enjoy your life, educate other folks. I think one of my greatest quotes is from Martin Luther King, and it says, "The beginning of the end of life is when you remain silent about the things that matter."

HIV and AIDS still matter, so keep lifting your voice.

George, that's a great way to end this interview. Thank you so much for coming in and meeting with me.

You're welcome.

Click here to e-mail George Burgess.

This podcast is a part of the series This Positive Life. To subscribe to this series, click here.
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This article was provided by TheBody.

See Also
Talk to a Physician About HIV/Hepatitis Coinfection in Our "Ask the Experts" Forums
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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Deborah Cotton Sun., Jun. 2, 2013 at 5:59 pm UTC
Hey George, don't know if you will remember me or not; but you and my husband were once friends in Atl and I just wanted to say glad to see that you are doing okay. Keith is gone and missed everyday. Take care.
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Comment by: Aqiyl Qasim (Atlanta, Ga) Fri., Aug. 7, 2009 at 4:49 pm UTC
Thank you for sharing you story with those of us who are infected as well as affected by this disease. I'm not positive but was married to a woman who died from complications associated with this disease 8 years ago. I'm passionate about killing the stigma that associated with this malady through information and education because even though we all aren't infected, HIV/AIDS affects us all.
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Comment by: Kymm (Atlanta) Wed., Aug. 5, 2009 at 11:33 pm UTC
Hi George, this is Kymm, of course you know I am not HIV positive, but who is to say it couldn't, wouldn't or won't happen to me. I do believe in the work you are doing and if I can help in anyway let me know. I have so much respect for you and I really commend you on your work and the courage you have demonstrated in being true to me, yourself and the community. Thank you for a wonderful time and a new and beautiful outlook on life.
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Comment by: Hugh Paxton (Windhoek, Namibia) Fri., Jun. 26, 2009 at 12:03 pm UTC
Dear George,

You speak from the heart and from the world of brutal experience. I admire your style and your efforts. With my friend Stella Ileka, I'm putting together a magazine aimed at HIV positive Namibians. There are a lot and they need a bit of inspiration. It will be free, quarterly and I'm telling you its going to answer a lot of questions that are on people's minds but which they are afraid to ask. We wonder if you would like to become a columnist with specific focus on your personal experience with drug use and advocacy? You've been there, seen it, done it. And, more to the point, you are doing something about it! Your words will be real, not the sort of dreary "Just say No" govt/UN stuff that is currently being used as toilet paper by the guys out in the bush. We can't promise to shower you with dollars (for the first edition we can promise NOT to shower you with any dollars at all - no surprises there, probably)but we are looking at advertisers here and will pay you what we can afford - once we can afford it.

You've a lot to say, and there's a lot of lonely, frightened and ill informed people here who need to hear it. Drop me an email if you have time and are interested or just want to know more about our magazine. If you want to know a little more about me check

It's promoting my ghastly novel about Sierra Leone, so not strictly relevant. But worth a look, perhaps.

Our very best wishes!

Hugh and Stella

PS: Like your hat! Wish I'd had the forethought to buy one similar this afternoon. On a hot day we hit 40 degrees. Tonight, freak weather is going to bless us with minus 5.

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Comment by: David Crumbley (Apopka, Fl.) Wed., Dec. 3, 2008 at 9:34 pm UTC
I worked with George Burgess while at Macy's in Decatur, Ga. back in '80's and early 90's. He was one of my best friends. I'm so happy to hear he is alive. I lost touch when I moved to Fl. Please give him my email address. It would be so good to hear from him.
Thank you,
David Crumbley
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Comment by: Lisa Mysnyk (Atlanta, GA) Fri., Aug. 22, 2008 at 12:38 am UTC
Hi George, I admire you alot. I am also HIV positive. I received my peer counseling certificate from ASP too, while working at SisterLove,Inc. in 2005. Keep up the good work that you are doing. I love you brother.
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