Nine years ago, after checking myself into the hospital for what I thought was a very bad flu, I learned that my situation was more severe. I had a staph infection and a late stage HIV diagnosis, more commonly known as AIDS. I felt firsthand, the fear that until that moment I could only imagine so many people had experienced in the '80s and '90s.
It's surprising that someone could be diagnosed so late in this day and age, but unfortunately, my story is anything but unique. Despite the many significant advances in HIV prevention, testing and treatment, the disease continues to pose a serious threat to the health of Latinx, and other minority and marginalized communities. According to the CDC, in 2016, Hispanics and Latinx individuals accounted for 26% of new HIV diagnoses in the country. And while rates of new cases have declined among some groups recently, they are increasing among Latinx gay and bisexual men.
Though not unique to the Latinx community, HIV stigma, fear, and discrimination are persistent, and can be lethal. But it doesn't have to be this way. Unlike the early days of the epidemic, we live in an era when, with access to care, HIV is manageable. And we don't have to suffer the terrible side effects of the toxic drugs they used to call "treatment." Rather, highly tolerable, single-dosed treatments that work are widely available and to so many of us, work like miracles. Plus, if you adhere to your treatment regimen, and achieve viral suppression, you cannot transmit HIV to your sexual partners (Undetectable=Untransmittable).
It's my mission to share my story to let everyone know that people diagnosed today, who access treatment, can live normal, productive lives. In fact, they can expect to live almost as long as someone not living with HIV. HIV treatment really works, but it also doesn't hurt to have the support of my close friends who continued to see me -- not my HIV status -- first. It took a solid seven months to get my HIV under control and my viral load to undetectable. But I reached that milestone on Halloween of that same year and I've remained undetectable since.
There are times in my work when it feels like I'm swimming against multiple currents. But despite the challenges we face, things are getting better. We will beat HIV. But we need to start talking about it and the realty of treatment today. This National Latinx HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, my wish is that by sharing my story, you might share yours and that together we get the word out about HIV prevention, testing, and treatment. Because together is how we will end HIV stigma and move one that much closer to making HIV a distant memory.
Julio Fonseca is program manager at AIDS United.
[Note from TheBody: This article was originally published by AIDS United on Oct. 15, 2018. We have cross-posted it with their permission.]