HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The Walk to End HIV will return in person for the first time in two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began. According to AIDS Foundation Houston, about one in six people are unaware of their positive status. Advocates said if that number improves, the epidemic could end as soon as 10 years.
The Walk to END HIV will take place on March 6 at the Sam Houston Park. Registration starts at 11 a.m., and the program begins at noon. For more information, click here.
Tiffany Quinton remembers the day she was diagnosed with HIV 27 years ago, only nine months after she gave birth to her baby. It was the day her life changed forever. She shared the difficulties she went through, from the debilitating treatments to the heightened stigma around the disease back in the 90s.
"It was like I had been hit with a rock and ran over by a truck at the same time. The first thing I was told was that I was getting ready to die because I was HIV positive. I thought, 'What did I do to deserve this?'" said Quinton. "I've been on 24 different medications, and I had to keep some of it in the refrigerator and hide it when I was traveling."
Caleb Brown found out about his HIV diagnosis four years ago. Even though he had some knowledge about the disease, he said he didn't know what it meant for his future.
"It was all sorts of emotions. I felt like I was being pulled out of one section of my life and put into another by myself," said Brown. "I was terrified that no one would ever want to date me again. I would never find a partner. I would not have a sex life anymore. Even though I knew all of those things stem from stigma, I couldn't shake the feeling."
Experiences like Quinton's and Brown's are the reasons why John Huckaby, the CEO of the AIDS Foundation Houston, said their organization exists. The foundation began in 1982 when medical professionals at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center started to understand and see patients with HIV.
"I started working with AIDS Foundation Houston in 1990, and it was a very different time. We had no idea that 40 years later, we still don't have a vaccine and a cure," said Huckaby. "But what we do have are very powerful medications that can prevent the acquisition of HIV and also help a person living with HIV to protect their immune system and achieve what we call viral suppression."
Now, their programs include supportive housing, outreach in Texas prisons, discharge planning for those coming out of incarceration, outreach in underserved communities, food, rental assistance, mental health services, and more. However, AIDS Foundation Houston's efforts to end the HIV epidemic took a hit during the pandemic. They had to halt in-person festivities for their annual Walk to End HIV which raises money and awareness towards the cause.
"The Walk gives us an opportunity to amplify and to raise the consciousness once again that the HIV epidemic is not over. That HIV is still in our communities. We see more than 1,000 new confirmed cases every year among Houstonians," Huckaby said. "The Walk also raises money for 12 organizations, including faith-based, community service, and healthcare agencies that provide quality services and programs like us."
Huckaby said communities of color and younger populations are especially vulnerable to the disease. Approximately two out of three new cases are from Houston's Black or Hispanic/Latino communities. 1 in 5 cases is from someone under the age of 25.
"We think about things like historical inequities to access to care. We talk about employment, health insurance, access to providers. We talk about how HIV also is impacting persons experiencing poverty, homelessness, and prior incarceration," he said.
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Brown said being diagnosed with HIV can be an isolating experience. But the annual walk helped him find a sense of community and support. Now, he finds passion and purpose in advocating for HIV education and awareness.
"I felt really isolated, and the first AIDS walk that I attended, there were probably 2000 people there. It was so overwhelming to see every gender, every race, every age, everyone coming together for a specific cause," he said.
Thanks to advanced treatments, those living with HIV can now be undetectable with the virus and unable to transmit it to other people. The U=U Campaign is one of the initiatives to promote and advocate for the undetectable equals untransmittable message to decrease HIV stigma and combat the message that people living with HIV pose a "risk." Pills like PrEP can also prevent HIV infection among those who may be exposed.
"A person who is not living with HIV has options today. Either a once-a-day pill or once every other month injection. These medications today to prevent HIV are up to 99% effective at preventing the acquisition of HIV," said Huckaby.
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Quinton, a community advocate, said she wants the public to know that she is a living testament that people living with HIV can live fulfilling lives.
"27 years later, I'm still here fighting the fight, and I will continue to fight the fight. I have HIV, but it does not have me. Three letters will never define who I am. I say that because people always look at you like you did something wrong. I didn't ask for this," she said. "I do have a fiance, and it's just a better life. I used to take 24 pills a day. Now I only take two."
Brown said he now speaks out about his HIV story, hoping to break down the stigma of the virus.
"HIV is not a 'gay' disease. It is a disease that anyone can have. HIV is only transmitted through certain body fluids -- semen, vaginal fluid, blood, and breast milk. If you're undetectable, none of those fluids are a potential threat. If everyone got tested tomorrow, everyone would know their HIV status and knowing your HIV status is the first step in ending the HIV epidemic. HIV would end in 10 years," Brown said.
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Walk to End HIV returns for the first time in two years
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