Several months before he had been in an intimate relationship with a man who was HIV-positive but with whom Larry always practiced safe sex. But one night, the condom he used broke. “As soon as I noticed the broken condom, I just knew I got infected.” He didn’t think about it much over the next several months, keeping busy with two jobs and going to school to get a business degree.
Then one day he applied for life insurance. He took a blood test and it came back positive—“coverage denied” the insurance company said. He then went to Saint Louis Effort For AIDS and took another test. 20 minutes later he got the news he feared.
“I believed it, but then I didn’t believe it. I didn’t cry. I wasn’t angry. I just went home and turned on the TV,” recalls Larry.
At that moment Larry became another statistic in a category that boasts some rather alarming, even frightening numbers–the category of HIV/AIDS in the St. Louis African- American community.
While African-Americans make up just 19% of the total population of the area, they comprise 52% of those living with HIV/AIDS—more than any other ethnic group. Alarming still is the prevalence of infection among black females—who make up 85% of all the females living with HIV/AIDS in the area.
Larry thinks he knows why.
“I know women, 18, 19, 20 year old women who are HIV positive because they’re sleeping with boyfriends who are either bi-curious or bisexual, and are infected themselves,” he says. “They need to get educated.”
Educated like Larry did, long before he was infected. He took advantage of community education programs offered by Saint Louis Effort For AIDS, the oldest AIDS service organization in the area. Today Larry attends a support group at no charge through EFA. EFA also offers support for partners and family members of HIV/AIDS clients. And thanks to the great strides made in treatment, he only takes 4 pills a day to keep the virus at bay. “I’m much more conscious about my health,” he says energetically. “I work out now, lift weights, walk and jog, take vitamins and eat healthier—it just makes me feel better.”
Fortunately, being diagnosed with HIV is no longer considered the death sentence it once was. But that doesn’t mean those at high-risk of becoming infected should stop practicing safe sex, or should ever share drug needles. “The advancements made in the treatment of HIV/AIDS have saved countless lives and for that we’re very grateful,” says Cheryl Oliver, Executive Director, Saint Louis Effort for AIDS. “But because the disease is now treatable, too many people believe its okay to engage in high-risk behavior, and as a result, we’re continue to see new cases of HIV and AIDS, as well as other STDS.”
Larry is now involved in a monogamous relationship with another man who is also HIV-positive, and stresses that they must practice safe-sex because they can re-infect each other with a different strain of the virus.
“It’s so important that the African-American community get smart about HIV/AIDS,” Larry says. “If you’ve had multiple partners, or engaged in high-risk behavior, go to Saint Louis Effort for AIDS and get yourself tested. It’s free, it only takes 20 minutes and could make the difference between life and death—for you and your partner.”
World AIDS Day is December 1, and will be marked in St. Louis by the first big AIDS Service Organization collaboration in many years. “The State of HIV: Trends, Treatments & Tolerance” is sponsored by St. Louis City Department of Health and Missouri Foundation for Health. The event will be at the History Museum from 11:00 a.m.-1:30 p.m. The event is free, but registration is required by November 19. For more information, contact Saint Louis Effort for AIDS at 314-754-0132 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY: JOHN O’CONNOR