Being HIV positive used to be a death sentence, but that’s no longer the case.
In the early years of the epidemic, when there was little treatment available for people with human immunodeficiency virus, it often quickly progressed to AIDS, ultimately ending in death. The virus has existed in the United States since the mid- to late 1970s, with the first reported cases in 1981, according to the AIDS Institute, a national non-profit research, advocacy and education group.
Of the 774,467 people who had been diagnosed with AIDS in the United States between 1981 and 2000, 448,060 of them died, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For local HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment, contact:
-- Albany Medical Center HIV and AIDS Medicine — 24-hour provider hot line: 262-4043; confidential HIV testing: 264-6828
-- Ellis Primary Care, McClellan Street, Schenectady: 382-2260
-- The Albany Damien Center: 449-7119
-- The Schenectady Damien Center: 374-2683
Now, with treatment and medications available at most hospitals and clinics, people who contract HIV — or even develop AIDS from the virus — can live for decades.
At the epidemic’s peak in 1995, 9,598 New Yorkers with AIDS died, according to the state Department of Health.
In 2013, 1,697 New Yorkers with AIDS died — the lowest number of virus-related deaths the state recorded since the outbreak began.
Perry Junjulas, executive director at the Albany and Schenectady Damien Centers, has been living with AIDS since 1995, and was given 36 months to live.
“I didn’t doubt it,” Junjulas recalled of his prognosis. “I was watching people drop dead around me every minute.”
Fortunately, Junjulas said he was part of the “Lazarus effect” — on his way to dying, but picked back up as medicine for the disease improved. His diagnosis came right about the time that medications and therapy for HIV and AIDS started to become widely available.
“When you talk about HIV, you used to always be talking about death,” Junjulas said. “Now, you’re talking about the living.”
Currently, 154,105 people in the state are living with HIV, according to the Department of Health.
“The disease burden has not gone down,” said Cynthia Miller, acting division head for HIV medicine at Albany Medical Center. “The number of people living with HIV is climbing and, in a strange way, that’s a good thing because it means they’re living.”
Even so, Junjulas said contracting HIV, or the virus that causes AIDS, is still common, with 3,000 new cases diagnosed in the state each year.
The rate of HIV, which is most often transmitted through unprotected sex and needle-sharing by intravenous drug users, is especially high in young gay men of color and in poverty-stricken communities, Junjulas said.
In Schenectady County, as of December 2013, 441 people were living with HIV and AIDS.
“Schenectady is a tough area,” said Christopher Murphy, the assistant residency director at the Ellis Family Medicine Family Residency Program. “Poverty is so overwhelming here that it’s hard for people to feel like their noses are above water enough to think about getting care.”
Several resources are available in the area for HIV and AIDS, Junjulas said, including Ellis, Albany Medical Center and the Damien Center locations in Albany and Schenectady, which provide free treatment and support for people diagnosed with HIV and their families.
“If people aren’t practicing safe sex, they can contract the virus at an alarming rate — especially in a region of the state like this,” Junjulas said. “The difference today is, if we can get someone into care to take their medications on a regular basis, they can live a life just as long as someone who’s not infected with HIV.”
Miller said over the past few years, several medications have surfaced to make this possible, including Prep — a daily pill taken to prevent contracting the infection.
Other medications are now on the market, too, she said, that reduce the HIV virus in an infected person to an undetectable level, so it’s almost impossible to transmit it.
“Things are much better than they were in the beginning,” Miller said. “Despite the progress, there is still an incredible stigma attached to being diagnosed with the virus.”
On NBC’s “Today” show on Tuesday, actor Charlie Sheen shared a secret he’s been carrying for four years: He is HIV positive.
The interview revealed that since his diagnosis, Sheen paid off prostitutes and other people upward of $10 million to keep quiet about his diagnosis.
“If Charlie Sheen had cancer or diabetes, this wouldn’t have been an issue,” Junjulas said. “HIV is still so highly stigmatized when it doesn’t need to be. That stigma is what stops people from getting the care they need.”
“Just last week, I had a person who’s newly diagnosed say they wouldn’t tell anyone,” Miller recalled. “People have to make their own decision so I didn’t push it, but people need to know that I am fine with them being HIV positive and there’s nothing wrong with them. My team and everyone here find them to be perfectly normal, healthy people, which is what they are and will be if they receive the proper treatment.”
Miller said getting tested is a way to care for yourself as well as your significant other.
“People who are HIV positive can walk around for years and never know it,” Miller said. “If you have had unprotected sex, get tested, and don’t refuse it. Pregnant women never refuse the HIV test because they’ll do anything to protect their babies. That’s how people should be caring for themselves and their significant others, and getting tested regularly is the way to do that.”
Miller said as more people with HIV and AIDS have long, healthy lives, they are a regular part of life.
“You will encounter people with HIV,” Miller said. “You will encounter them and not even know it. They may be in your church or workplace and may not tell you, but as long as you are practicing safe sex, not sharing needles and getting tested, there is nothing to worry about.”
Of HIV, Junjulas said, “This is a disease nobody deserves, but it’s nothing to be afraid of — it’s something to be aware of.”