- Associated Press - Friday, June 30, 2017

ST. LOUIS (AP) - The walls of Johnnie Jones’ apartment in Florissant display framed articles about former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, as well as photos of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.

They also hold a photo of Jones, 51, with relatives and certificates he has received for his fight against HIV and AIDS.

Tuesday was National HIV testing day. And Jones, a gay African-American who learned he was HIV-positive in 1990, is trying to make sure more people get tested for the virus.

Jones’ long battle took a turn in 2000, when he learned his HIV had progressed to AIDS. That was about the time, he said, that the stigma associated with the disease was at its worst.

“I got into a depression when I realized there was no one to talk to and ended up messing my credit,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (https://bit.ly/2sNKBbD ). He filed for bankruptcy in 1991.

His life with HIV and AIDS began with a flu and weight loss that led him to a doctor. He learned his diagnosis via a phone call while he was working. But in 1990, information about HIV was harder to come by, he said, and he didn’t take his condition too seriously. As his symptoms worsened, he sought help.

When he was diagnosed with pneumonia in 2000, he learned his HIV had progressed into AIDS. Prescription drugs gave him diarrhea and nightmares, he said, so he stopped taking them.

Eventually, he connected with the St. Louis Regional Health Services Planning Council and learned how to take care of himself. Now he volunteers there.

In St. Louis and much of the country, HIV disproportionately affects minorities and young people, said Franda Thomas, communicable disease manager at the city’s health department.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said figures from 2016 indicate that black men 25 and younger made up 79 percent of new HIV-AIDS cases, compared to 9.7 percent for white gay men in the same age range. Jones said he believes many people, especially black men, fear being tested for HIV because of how they may be treated if others find out they are positive.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 1.1 million people are living with HIV. That number includes an estimated 166,000 who don’t know they are infected. The center noted that in 2015, nearly 40,000 people were diagnosed with HIV and that 30 percent of new HIV infections are transmitted by people who are living with undiagnosed HIV.

Sheila, who asked to be identified only by her first name, is also living with AIDS. She said when she was diagnosed in 1995, a doctor told her she had three years to live.

Her biggest concern was what would happen to her daughter, then 10.

“I feared dying and not taking care of her,” she recalled.

She got tested only because she had been repeatedly falling ill with different ailments, including the recurring yeast infections that often strike people with AIDS. At the time, Sheila said, she didn’t think women could get the disease that she knew little about. That changed when her doctor called her into the office and told her she had AIDS.

She had worried about unplanned pregnancies, not sexually transmitted diseases. Her boyfriend had not told her he was HIV-positive, but his health had begun failing.

Once Sheila knew she was ill, she began learning all she could about AIDS.

Now 55 and with two master’s degrees to her credit, she wants to make sure people know the dangers of HIV and AIDS. Because more HIV-positive people are living longer and managing the illness, many people don’t think it is as serious as when a diagnosis meant a death sentence.

That was brought home in striking fashion, she said, when her church held an HIV testing event and “not a single soul showed up,” she said.

“Folks are not using condoms, and girls are getting pregnant, and infected with herpes and syphilis,” she said. Many women learn their HIV status at local pregnancy clinics.

Missouri’s health department said last year African-American women made up 71.4 percent of HIV and AIDS cases among heterosexual women,with white heterosexual women making up 21.4 percent.

Experts are split over whether St. Louisans are snubbing HIV screening.

“We’re seeing more younger people, between 18 and 29 years of age on average, seeking HIV testing,” said Erise Williams, president and CEO of Williams and Associates, an organization spearheading HIV screening among those at risk of infection in St. Louis.

Williams said older adults may only seek testing after they fear possible exposure via sexual contact. But the soaring rate of opioid and heroin abuse, he said, can be putting more people at risk for HIV and other STDs as a result of substance abuse.

Missouri’s law that makes it a crime to knowingly expose someone to HIV may also affect a person’s decision on testing, Williams said. If people don’t know their HIV status, they can’t be held liable for infecting someone.

In 2015, St. Louis showed a higher rate of new HIV diagnoses and cases than in the rest of the metro area. And the city health department said 63 percent of new HIV cases in the city involved African-Americans.

Improved treatments for HIV and AIDS mean longer life spans, which ironically has resulted in people being more willing to engage in sexually risky behavior, Williams said.

And the belief that HIV is something that happens to “someone else” is a driving force behind many HIV infections, he said.

Thomas said many people who are most at risk may not have direct access to sexual health resources.

In St. Louis County, health officials have a different view. Dr. Fredrick Echols is the director of the Communicable Disease Control Services at the county’s Department of Public Health, and he said they host numerous screening events. The county also sponsors a number of campaigns to teach the public about resources to fight sexually transmitted illnesses.

Even if health departments offer free or affordable testing, Thomas said, there can be obstacles such as getting off work or finding transportation to the testing event.

The city and county both have been behind a “Get Tested STL” campaign urging people to get screened for Tuesday’s national testing day.

The campaign has included posters and announcements on MetroLink trains and buses. Events such as national testing day help raise awareness and educate people, Thomas said.

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, https://www.stltoday.com

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