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HIV Diagnoses Drop in NYC, but Patients Still Deal with Stigmas

HOST INTRO: The number of new HIV diagnoses in New York City dropped last year by nearly nine percent compared to the year before, according to a new report from the Health Department. But some New Yorkers contracted the virus many years ago. They have been living with HIV for most of their lives, and they’re dealing with the stigmas of both growing old and being infected. Bhrikuti Rai (Bree-KOO-tee RYE) has the story.

Ambient sound from the exhibition (00:03)

RAI 1: Eric Sawyer welcomes guests to the Arts and AIDS exhibition, which opened last month at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in SoHo. He works at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, one of the first AIDS organizations in the world. The exhibition is commemorating the organization’s 35th anniversary, roughly the same number of years Sawyer has been living with HIV. (00:20)

SAWYER 1 I actually became symptomatic in 1981 when HIV was referred to as Gay related Immune Deficiency. So that predates the discovery of the HIV virus (00:13)

RAI 2: That was a time when little was known about the virus, or how it spread. There was no treatment. Most people died within a year or two of getting infected. Sawyer survived, but he saw the devastation and loss at close quarters. (00:12)

SAWYER 2 My boyfriend at that time came down with full blown AIDS in 1984 and died in 86. And so that added to my fear. (00:10)

RAI 3: Sawyer is 63 now. He’s part of a growing population of Americans over 50 living with the virus. It’s a group that makes up nearly half of people with HIV. They’ve survived the virus, but Steven Karpiak says their battle gets tougher as they get older. He’s a researcher at New York’s ACRIA Center on HIV and Ageing. (00:19)

KARPIAK 1 Some people they have cancer, they have heart disease or they have kidney disease but they have a few of these. But this population has many of them at once. (00:07)

RAI 4: And that’s on top of HIV itself… (00:02)

KARPIAK 2 So they are facing a huge burden of disease. (00:03)

RAI 5: Sawyer began to face health problems years ago. He had his first hip replacement when he was 47. Since then he has had the same hip replaced again, and the other hip as well. (00:10)

SAWYER 3 And so, I am having to you know deal with basically HIV geriatric issues. It’s just another challenge for my doctor and me to navigate to stay healthy. (00:12)

RAI 6: Availability of better drugs has changed the once fatal infection to a chronic, manageable condition. Sawyer is used to living with HIV, but other people are less blasé. He says dating is tough. (00:12)

SAWYER 4 There’s often comments from people who do not have HIV that they are clean and they want anybody who approaches them for date to be clean too. (00: 10)

RAI 7: Attitudes like that remind him of the 80s and 90s when he says people with AIDS were treated horrendously. (00:06)

SAWYER 5 So people would spit on you on the streets and call you a disease faggot. (00:06)

RAI 8: Sawyer channeled his anger towards activism, and many survivors who’ve lived with the virus have done the same. But not everyone can reveal their HIV positive status as he has. Joyce, a former drug addict is one of them. (00:12)

Joyce’s office ambience (00:02)

She has survived the infection for over 20 years now and is a peer educator in New York. She works with people infected with or affected by HIV. (00:09)

JOYCE 1 Through the peer training we do, the support that we offer, I really see people change their lives. (00:06)

RAI 9: But she hasn’t revealed her HIV positive status to her family. (00:04)

JOYCE 2 I grew up in another part of the country where people are extremely conservative. You have a lot of guilt and shame when you are HIV positive even when you’ve been working on yourself. (00:11)

RAI 10: Like most older adults living with HIV, Joyce is battling not the just stigma but also her deteriorating health. She had her first knee replacement five months ago. (00:10)

JOYCE 2 Every health concern that I as a 69 year old person has is heightened by my HIV status. (00:09)

RAI 11: HIV is no longer a death sentence. But Steven Karpiak says too many people still look on it as a moral stain, not just a disease…and as a result too many HIV positive people are isolated. It’s hard to find caregivers, and hard to keep friends. (00:15)

JOYCE 3 It won’t help unless we help people with HIV, especially older adults stand up and say look at me I am here, I am one of you, I am part of the community. (00:10)

RAI 12: Until then overcoming stigma and improving the lives of long-term survivors of HIV will remain a challenge. (00:07)

Bhrikuti Rai, Columbia Radio News.

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