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Dealing With The Stigma of Being HIV Positive


December 1st is World AIDS Day. Approximately 50-thousand people each year in the U.S.  Become infected with HIV, and of that 5,000 per year in Florida alone. 

26 years ago, around the height of the AIDS epidemic, Thomas Dozier found out while he was serving time in jail that he too had the disease that was spreading fear throughout the rest of the country. “It was humiliation; you know what I’m saying because they used to come right by my cell and they would pee on you and they used to throw feces on you.” said Dozier, as he describes his experience in prison.

Contrary to what many thought was a homosexual disease during the time, Dozier was actually a drug addict who got infected after sharing a needle with his brother.  After completing his sentence on a drug related charge, he quickly found out that the fear and misinformation was rampant, even in his own family.“When I got out of prison I went over to my sister’s house and she made me feel real horrible, she put a piece of plastic over the table, paper plates and stuff like that, so when I left she put it all in one thing, bound it up put it in the trash and threw it outside. She even bleached the door knobs that I touched when I left the house.”

But with all that’s known about the disease today, Dozier says there are many people who are still ill-informed. “I needed a shoulder replacement and I was in Asheville NC, I went to a doctor and I was telling him everything about my shoulder. He was telling me all these things that he could do to me and he had to at least e in his early 60s. But after all that I mentioned that I was HIV positive, this guy took three steps back and then started telling me that he couldn’t do anything for me and he immediately went and washed his hands.”

The HIV/AIDS Program Manager for the Florida Department of Health, Marlene Lalota says there are still misconceptions about the disease floating around.“In every survey that we do, there is a small proportion of people who believe you can get it from mosquitoes, sharing cups, water fountains, plates, hugging, kissing. We hear that all the time. None of that is true. HIV compared to many other infectious diseases is very difficult to transmit. Even in unprotected sexual contact with somebody infected, it’s not a given that the virus will be transmitted. ”

But Lalota adds about five thousand people contract the disease each year in Florida. Currently there are about a 130,000 people living with AIDS in the state and she says 20 percent of them don’t even know they are infected. “Men who have sex with men,” said Lalota, is the most high risk population.  “no question, that’s the one group where we are seeing increasing rates”

After ending his marriage of ten years with his wife, Jeffery Pope started sleeping with men and eventually found out he was HIV positive. “I just went into a deep depression because I had my whole life set out before me. I was a college graduate, I had a great job.”Pope says he blames himself more than the person who gave him HIV, because he should have known better than to just takes someone’s word about having unprotected sex. “About six years after I ended a relationship, that this person called me and said, guess what I have HIV, I had it before I ever met you.”

Today, Pope is Chair of Florida’s HIV/AIDS Consumer Advisory Council and volunteers spreading awareness about HIV&AIDS. Marlene Lelota says thanks to advances, it’s very easy to get tested and know your status, even in the privacy of your own home. “We have rapid testing now, where you can get results in 10 minutes to 20minutes and then as you just mentioned, our most recent addition is an over-the-counter home test. This home test is a rapid test that you can perform in the privacy of your home, it’s completely anonymous, it’s costs around 40-bucks, it’s available in most major drug stores and other retailers”

For additional information or to get access to free testing and other services, contact your local health departments. 

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