HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – More than 1.2 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, and one in eight of them don’t know they have it.
Midstaters worked to change that Tuesday on World AIDS Day.
Healthcare has come a long way since the epidemic began; but doctors and those living with the disease say there’s a lot of fight left.
Nearly 20 years ago, Harold Dorsey, Sr., felt like a leper.
“I had ups and downs,” he said. “Back then, you were a pariah.”
That’s when Dorsey, a veteran, found out he had AIDS. He talked about it during a vigil Tuesday at the state capitol.
“When I was much younger,” he said, “I did drugs. I stopped. I thought I was done, over with. Everybody who I did drugs with are gone.”
Dorsey was determined not to let the disease beat him, but he described the early days as a “lonely time.”
“There was no prejudice in AIDS,” he said. “Because nobody liked you. Black, white, green, gay, straight, no one wanted to be associated with someone who had AIDS.”
He remembered the lack of education regarding his diagnosis. Friends wouldn’t offer him a glass of water for fear they’d be infected, he said.
A lot has changed since then, for one, the treatment.
“When I was diagnosed,” Dorsey said, “you died.”
But there is still a stigma, “and that’s another thing that keeps people from getting tested and knowing their status,” said Rosemary Browne, president and CEO if Alder Health Services, which helped organize the vigil.
Throughout Pennsylvania, 58,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus since 1980, according to data from the state’s health department.
In a news conference Tuesday, the state’s physician general recommitted her office to the fight.
“We will make Pennsylvania a place where all new HIV infections are rare, all HIV-positive Pennsylvanians have access to appropriate medications and health care, and all HIV-positive Pennsylvanians have a high quality of life,” Dr. Rachel Levine said.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates, 47,352 people were diagnosed with HIV nationwide, and an additional 26,688 were diagnosed with AIDS.
Not all groups are equally affected: HHS reports men who have sex with men (MSM) accounted for 63 percent of all new HIV infections in 2010, and 78 percent of new infections among men.
Likewise, minority communities are disproportionately affected by HIV. African Americans, making up 12 percent of the U.S. population, represented 44 percent of new infections in 2010.
To help fight the virus, Hamilton Health Services spent a few hours Tuesday providing free HIV tests.
A mouth swab and 20 minutes is the first step in determining whether or not you have the virus.
But it’s still a struggle getting people in the door.
“People aren’t dying anymore, so you don’t hear about, so people are getting a false sense of security,” said Dr. Arthur Williams.
Groups at Hamilton reach out to community schools and bars to get people tested; the fear surrounding the test is another hurdle.
Doctors also encourage everyone to practice safe sex to prevent the spread of the virus, and many clinics, including Hamilton, provide free HIV testing year-round through federal grants.
“Don’t be afraid to know you’re positive,” Williams said. “Be afraid not to know.”
“And if it does happen, you’re not alone,” said Dorsey.
Almost two decades after his diagnosis, Dorsey is doing great. He’s happily married and his disease is undetectable.
His message is simple: Get tested.
“You’re doing it for you and the people you love,” he said, “because the only thing that can hurt you is what you don’t know.”