SAN ANTONIO – Approximately 35.4 million people worldwide have died of AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic in the 1980s. Currently, there are 36.9 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide.
There is no cure for the disease, but strides have been made since the disease was identified in 1983.
KSAT reporter Sarah Acosta sat down with Carlos Carmona, a San Antonio man who has lived with HIV for 29 years. He talked about his emotional journey with the disease, losing loved ones to AIDS and his hopes for a cure.
“I've always known I'm gay, so I said, ‘This might affect me one day,’” Carmona said.
Carmona was 13 years old when he learned about HIV in 1983. He had no idea how big of an impact the disease would have on his life.
“For a very long time, I did stupid things, and here I am now, HIV-positive for 29 years,” he said.
Carmona was diagnosed with HIV when he was 20 years old in 1990.
“Then, of course, I thought my world came down,” Carmona said. “I thought I was going to die.”
He said he was diagnosed at a time when there was little hope, knowledge or treatment for HIV.
“Back then, everyone was dying,” Carmona said. “Everyone that acquired HIV died for those first 10 years.”
He said the only option was taking high doses of azidothymidine, or AZT. It's a drug that Carmona calls toxic. He said he took it for two weeks and stopped because it made him feel sick.
“Sometimes, it was worse to take the AZT than having HIV,” Carmona said.
For seven years, Carmona lived thinking every day could be his last, knowing his HIV could become AIDS.
Then, in 1997, the antiretroviral therapy pills that make HIV undetectable and untransmittable were introduced. The pills gave Carmona and millions of people with HIV hope.
It was “like I could breathe,” Carmona said, remembering when he found out about the pills.
But that was just the start of his journey with the disease. Carmona's partner, Kimberly, was also HIV-positive. They started dating in 1990. Kimberly wasn't as fortunate as Carmona during those seven years before the antiretroviral drugs came out. His HIV progressed into AIDS.
“The last two years, he just slowly wasted away, so, yeah, it was hard,” Carmona said.
He dedicated the last couple of years of Kimberly’s life to taking care of him.
“He told me once that he didn't want to be alone when he died,” he said.
Carmona took Kimberly to a family lake house so the love of his life could die in peace.
“He sort of looked at me, and I put my arm around him, and he passed away when he was in my arms,” Carmona said. “It's one of the hardest and most beautiful things that's ever happened to me.”
Kimberley died in 1998, a year after the drugs came out, but by that time, his AIDS had taken over his body.
“People don't quite understand what it is to lose a person like that when you yourself can die that way, because then I was left alone,” Carmona said.
It was then that Carmona knew he had to do something -- rally and advocate for a cure for a disease that was so sharply embedded into his life. For many years, Carmona also had drug and alcohol addictions. He said that when he became completely clean, his HIV/AIDS advocacy became his lifeline.
“Now this is really what I live for,” Carmona said.
He said it's still a daily struggle dealing with the stigma of HIV.
“Trying to get rid of the stigma,” Carmona said. “There's a lot of stigma about HIV (-positive) people, and we are just like you. We are just like you or any other person on this Earth.”
Carmona has been part of the Ryan White Planning Council for several years now, where he sits on the board. It's a group that provides social and medical services for people who are HIV-positive.
“What gives me happiness now is being able to do this, to speak about HIV and speak about stigma and inform people that if you're HIV-positive, it's not a death sentence. You are not hated by God. You know, there are a lot of misconceptions," Carmona said.
He has also closely followed the progression toward a complete cure for HIV, something that currently does not exist.
In 2007, a man in Berlin was cured of HIV after rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and two bone marrow transplants. He was being treated for cancer, not HIV.
In March, a medical journal reported that a second person was possibly cured of their HIV after receiving a type of stem cell transplant. The patient was also being treated for cancer.
KSAT asked Carmona what he would feel if a cure were to happen during his lifetime.
“I've never really thought about that. Isn't that funny?” he said.
Knowing that a cure could be within reach is something that Carmona said would be bittersweet.
“Of course, it will make me feel ecstatic, but I will still think about the millions of people that died because of this disease," he said.