John knew that a test was available that could tell him whether he was HIV positive. But he put off having the test. "I struggled with the decision to go get tested because of the implications of a positive test result, the fear of being stigmatized," he says.
Instinctively, John thought he was positive. "And I wasn't ready to deal with it," he says.
John's fear is common. Even 25 years into the AIDS epidemic, there is still a stigma associated with being HIV positive. "The stigma or shame surrounding HIV disease is often thought to be a thing of the past," says Jean Flatley McGuire, Ph. D., Director of Policy Research at Northeastern University. "But there is evidence that stigma related to AIDS, even in the U.S., has been on the rise since the late 1990s, as AIDS education has been decreased."
Another reason John was afraid to get tested was that the drugs that are now available for people with HIV didn't exist when he was first worried about being HIV positive. "What was the point of knowing I was positive," John had asked himself, "if I couldn't be treated?"
At last, he found the courage to go to be tested at the Health Department across the street from the office where he worked. But a year would pass before he could face the results. "I was living with uncertainty," he says.
One day, on his coffee break, he decided he had to know.
"Sure enough," he says, "it was a positive test. I went into shock and isolation after that."
For several years, John and his partner kept the secret. "I didn't feel safe disclosing it to my family or the community or work," he says. It took getting to know other people with HIV and finding out about both medical and non-medical treatments for him to open up.
Today, John says that getting tested and starting to take some of the medications that are available is the best decision he's ever made. "I believe I'm alive today because I know my status," he says. "I've been living with the disease now for almost 23 years. I don't think I'd be alive if I weren't in treatment."
"Knowing one's status is an important first step to healthier living," Dr. McGuire says, "so getting counseling and testing as early as possible can make all the difference."
But the treatment drugs are not perfect. They may cause side effects. Not everyone responds well to them. People are still getting sick with HIV and dying. "Living well with HIV is a lifelong commitment," Dr. McGuire says, "so prevention is still the best medicine."
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