“I am a person who is living with HIV, I don’t necessarily say I have HIV. I am a firm believer in speaking positively in the atmosphere, which means that I’m thriving and taking ownership. Saying ‘I have something’ means that it is taking over me and that’s not the case for me,” said 32-year-old Duian Bridges.

Bridges was diagnosed with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) a few years ago. HIV is a virus that damages the immune system and destroys cells, resulting in the inability of the body to fight other diseases. This disease can also cause Acquired Immunodeficiency Virus (AIDS) if left untreated. There is no cure, though HIV can be controlled. Bridges says he still remembers how he felt the day his life changed forever.

“Well, I tested myself. When I found out, it was very emotional ... I always tell people I think of a movie when someone is about to die, and they see all these flashbacks. So, I thought about the things in the future that I wanted to do and reflected on how I could not achieve those goals anymore [such as] me being a father, finding love, and telling my mom my status," Bridges said.

Bridges said what immediately flashed in his mind was “no one’s going to love me” and “I can’t have a child anymore.”

“It just felt as though I was a complete failure. I didn’t want to live, to be honest with you," he said. “I say all of that because a lot of people in my shoes experience the exact feeling at that moment, because we all desire some form of relationship and love and to feel like your options are limited or people will judge you or look down on you because of something...it hurts,” he said.

Bridges says it made him a feel less than and unworthy, but over time he has learned to value himself.

“Just because I am a person living with HIV doesn’t mean I don’t deserve the same things as individuals without HIV," he said.

Statistics and why rates are increasing

According to a Patch Media article, new HIV rates dropped approximately 18 percent nationally between 2008 and 2014, but in some areas of the country, specifically Georgia, the rates were still climbing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that more than half of the new HIV cases in 2016 were in Southern states, where 38 percent of United States residents live. According to the CDC, Georgia had 31.8 cases per 100,000 people in 2016.

Rodrigues Lambert, Georgia HIV/AIDS surveillance coordinator for the Georgia Department of Public Health (GDPH), says that HIV is decreasing but not in all populations. The population of concern is African American men between 20-39 who have sex with men (MSM or men seeking men), according to Lambert. 

“We see that the majority of those cases are among men who have sex with men, and in particularly our greatest growing sub-population social group that’s impacting HIV right now is MSM, young black MSM, and heterosexual African American women," he said.  

Dr. Jean Bonhomme, internal medicine specialist, said that Georgia is ranked number 6 in the nation with just over 38,300 reported people living with HIV.

“Unfortunately, if Georgia does not take precaution and practice less risky behavior, it will rise up the list," he said.

Health Educator at Clark Atlanta University, Clarissa Francis, also an associate of Morehouse School of Medicine, provides HIV testing to students through grant funds.

“We have seen an increase among African American men who sleep with men for different reasons. One is a part of the stigma in the African American community," Francis said.

According to Francis, not only are the rates of HIV in Georgia increasing in African American homosexual men, but there is additionally a rise of HIV rates in heterosexual African American women. Lack of knowledge and stigma in the African American community are risk factors, but the biggest risk factor for HIV is unprotected sex.

The risk factor increases for men who participate in anal sex, which creates the highest risk of transmission due to the tearing and fissures that can be caused. Francis also believes that although people are aware of HIV, individuals still receive the information like “it can’t happen to them” and fail to realize it doesn’t take multiple times to contract the disease. Infection can happen the first time round.

“African American males who have sex with men don’t always necessarily identify as gay. Some can be bisexual where they have a woman as a partner as well [as] living the life of a heterosexual man. Which is the stigma I was referring to earlier ... what it means for an African American man to have sex with another man and not having that support,” said Francis.

Francis says that education on prevention, contraction and transmission is important. Everyone needs to make sure they are getting the correct care and are staying healthy.

“People who are living with HIV are living healthy lives. It’s manageable, treatable, but it also [requires] taking the responsibility to make sure [they] are taking care of themselves,” said Francis.

The Stigma of HIV

HIV related stigma and discrimination relates to prejudice, negative attitudes, and abuse directed at people living with HIV and AIDS, according to Avert, a UK-based organization that works to educate about HIV.

“Stigma and fear are huge. HIV isn’t necessarily killing people. If you are taking care of yourself, taking your medication regularly, staying in care, and monitoring what’s going on in your body, HIV isn’t going to kill you right now,” Bridges said.

Bridges says that he thinks one reason the stigma is so common in the African American community is because a lot of black men come from a religious background or from families where they cannot express themselves.

“It’s the stigma that kills, because people are afraid of seeking care, being seen, and thoughts of ‘What is this about to do with my body?’ or ‘Who do I have to tell?’ If I find out I’m positive, I’d rather not say because then I don’t have to tell people,” he said.

HIV outside of Georgia

New York resident Ricardo Little, 28, has been on his own since he was 16. Little was diagnosed with HIV in 2012.

“I felt lost, hurt, and confused. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or what was next. It felt like it was the end of the world. Everything just felt so unreal and in black and white. I was sad and depressed for a couple of months,” he said.

Little said when he found out, he was extremely shocked and could not speak.

“I left the building and walked [around] the block about four times, pacing, thinking, ‘What do I do next? Nobody’s going to want me, I’m not going to date, and how am I going to open up to people?’"

Little says that having HIV is not the end of the world, but individuals that are affected must keep a healthy lifestyle and take their medicine daily.

Fighting Back and Staying Strong

Duian Bridges has worked at several organizations around the HIV Prevention services since he was diagnosed. He co-founded a non-profit organization called Thrive Support Services Incorporated that focuses on support and providing linkage services.

“We truly empower people to live their most authentic selves and let people know not to let HIV stop your dreams. You can do everything you want to,” Bridges said.

Prevention, Advice, and Hope

Bridges said that prevention is key. Practicing safe-sex through regular condom usage, being aware of HIV, and communicating with your partner are three important aspects of staying protected from HIV.

“I’m a firm believer of partners testing together often," he said.

Bridges also said that in school, schools generally lack in teaching students the basics. Students often do not have a fundamental understanding of sex.

“No one wants to talk about it. You have individuals that are having sex, but schools don’t want to talk about sex. If they’re having sex, they are putting themselves in risky situations,” he said.

Bridges encourages individuals to not only talk about HIV, but also discuss other sexually transmitted diseases that are commonly contracted like herpes and gonorrhea.

“I think it’s important to discuss risk reduction, meaning everything is not for everybody. If you like to have sex with multiple people, decreasing the number of people is a good start and know their actual status. Some people don’t use lubrication, which is very important, because of the potential tears that can cause bleeding,” he said.

He advocates for people asking their sexual partners questions like “Have you ever had an STD?" and “When’s the last time you got tested?" Bridges also supports PrEP as an option for individuals who are negative, though regular testing is still important.

PrEP, pre-exposure prophylaxis, means using drugs to prevent disease in people who have not yet been exposed to the disease-causing agent, but think they may be at risk.

Medical Case Manager for AIDS Atlanta, Russell Patterson, said that they have witnessed an increase in HIV cases in Georgia over the past few years, specifically in Atlanta.

“Start having conversations. We need to change our conversations, talk with our families, be open to having discussions, and be willing to be educated,” he said.   

AIDS Atlanta creates awareness by partnering with members of the community that are doing work but need help bridging the gap. The organization provides free HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) testing because Georgia is ranked fifth in the nation for infections like hepatitis and syphilis according to a Patch Media article.

“[Taking care of your] mental health, talking to therapists, and being able to connect with other support networks is so important. So many people often get scared and take their medicine and think they are okay, but they don’t get to talk about it and share things … find someone that you can talk to and not feel judged and can be open with,” Bridges said. 

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