40 years later, HIV/AIDS stigma still persists, advocates say

Once-daily medications now prevent, treat HIV

Health experts say the stigma that persists after all these years is people’s attitudes of wanting to know their HIV status.

SAN ANTONIO – Science has come a long way since the first cases of AIDS were reported in the U.S. 40 years ago.

There are now medications taken once daily which not only prevent HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but also allows those who are HIV-positive to live out their lives without passing on the virus to their intimate partners.

However, Dr. Junda Woo, the medical director for Metro Health, said, “What has not changed enough is people’s attitudes.”

She said long-held false beliefs about HIV persist, such as “getting it” from shaking hands, when actually HIV is a sexually-transmitted virus.

“The stigma itself is hurting people,” Woo said, to the point many don’t want to know whether they’re HIV-positive or even getting the medications they need.

When in fact, Woo said by taking a pill every day, “HIV is a chronic disease like high blood pressure, like diabetes.”

Greg Casillas said he’s been living with HIV for 21 years.

“I wake up. I brush my teeth. I take my pill, and that’s it. My diagnosis doesn’t define who I am,” Casillas said.

The assistant director of the Thrive Youth Center, Casillas also is the co-chair of the End Stigma & HIV Alliance.

“We have to speak up. When they know us, they cannot deny us,” Casillas said.

Casillas said his commitment to ending the stigma he and others have encountered is a tribute to his brother’s legacy, who died of AIDS the day Casillas found out he himself was HIV-positive.

Rather than believe his diagnosis was the beginning of the end, Casillas said, “It was my challenge to then live until the end.”

He said although many still associate HIV/AIDS with the gay community, sex workers and drug users sharing needles, “There are many demographics and many socio-economic classes that are susceptible.”

December being HIV/Awareness Month, Woo and Casillas are urging people to get tested through the Metro Health STD/HIV Clinic.

By learning their HIV status, Woo said they’ll know whether they need the medication, which will eventually lower the level of the virus to “non-detectable.”

At least one new case daily is reported to Metro Health, Woo said.

Although the numbers in San Antonio have remained at about the same level, Woo said the numbers nationally have been dropping, as reflected in the recent data of sexually transmitted diseases in Bexar County.

However, Woo said, “We don’t have all the data from the pandemic yet. I’m worried that we might actually see an increase.”

About the Authors:

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.

William Caldera has been at KSAT since 2003. He covers a wide range of stories including breaking news, weather, general assignments and sports.