Central Indiana hospitals, organizations working to shatter stigma surrounding HIV

HIV/AIDS infection rates

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Data from the Centers for Disease Control shows an encouraging, yet challenging road ahead for the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Central Indiana hospitals and organizations are working to fight the virus, and shatter the stigma surrounding HIV.

According to the CDC, HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, weakens a person’s immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection. No effective cure exists for HIV, but with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled.

Deborah Stone remembers the day, back in 1995, when she was diagnosed with HIV.

“My whole world crashed,” Stone, of Indianapolis, said. “All I thought was I am going to die and I can’t hug and kiss my babies and I want to get high again.”

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Stone says she’s been clean for years, and is now a mother of six and a grandmother of six.

“I am doubly blessed!” Stone said. “Let me tell you. Society or the streets or whatever will count me out, but God counts me in.”

Indiana University Health reports there were 522 new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in Indiana in 2018.

“It’s a virus nobody asks for. Nobody wants,” said Sylvia Wiley, a nurse practitioner with IU Health. “It’s a chronic illness and it’s managed anymore much like diabetes or high blood pressure.”

Overall, CDC data states there are some declines in new HIV diagnoses nationwide, however, the agency has seen increases among certain groups.

Government data shows gay and bisexual men have the largest number of new diagnoses in the United States. Blacks and Hispanics/Latinos are disproportionately affected by HIV compared to other racial and ethnic groups

“In Indianapolis, we really haven’t seen the same decline that other communities have seen,” said Alan Witchey, president and CEO of the Damien Center. “We haven’t seen a significant growth, but we also have not seen the decline. It’s been very steady.”

“Undetectable equals untransmittable,” Wiley said. “So, if we diagnose a patient and start them on medication right away, and get their viral load to undetectable, they’re not going to be transmitting that virus to people in the community.”

Even with improving care and education, a stigma still surrounds HIV. Both IU Health and the Damien Center work to shatter that stigma.

“The truth is, you cannot get this virus by shaking hands, by kissing somebody, by sharing a toilet, by eating after somebody,” Witchey said. “All those things are very, very safe.”

Know your status, educate yourself, and as Stone says, “Love yourself. Speak up. This is your body.”

The Damien Center has helpful resources on:

IU Health LifeCare is the largest provider of HIV treatment and medical prevention services in the state of Indiana. IU Health also has more helpful resources, including living with HIV, as well as other services for the Bellflower Clinic.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services also has information on how to help you pay for HIV care and treatment.