Exhibit this weekend shows the broad reach of HIV

Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 7:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 7:16 p.m.

Renee Burgess of Jacksonville was diagnosed with HIV the day before Thanksgiving in 2007 — just three weeks after she found out she was pregnant with twins.

When the nurse told her, “I went numb,” said Burgess, who was then 24 years old. Burgess was even more shocked when the nurse told her husband, and he looked shocked — not from the diagnosis, but from having been “found out,” said Burgess.

A month later, Burgess moved out on her husband, and that Valentine’s Day, pretending to miss him, she called him with a made-up psychologist’s questionnaire and tricked him into confessing that he knew he had the HIV virus when he slept with her. Since failure to disclose a positive HIV status to sexual partners is a crime in Florida, Burgess’ husband was put in jail. Meanwhile Burgess was left to cope with a daunting diagnosis. She says the stressful situation caused her to deliver her twins four months early.

Burgess’ story dispels the myth that being married can prevent you from having or contracting HIV, and it’s one of the messages in a traveling art exhibit stopping in Gainesville this weekend. The exhibit, called “Faces of HIV,” is part of a project called “We Make the Change,” which is run by the Florida Department of Health. It will be on display at the Alachua County public library downtown today from noon to 5 p.m., and at the Super Walmart off Waldo Road Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.

The exhibit showcases the stories of several HIV-positive individuals throughout the state with their photographs and stories — both as written in journals and on video. It is designed to promote understanding about the disease and its broad reach in the population and, most importantly, reduce the stigma associated with it.

“It makes people realize, (HIV-positive people) are everyday people like they are … they just happen to be infected with this disease,” said Robert Davis, Alachua County HIV/AIDs program coordinator. “If we can get that message across, we should make great strides in reducing stigma.”

Davis also hopes reducing stigma will encourage more people to get tested for HIV. “People don’t get tested because they don’t want to be thought of as at risk or having done something dirty or inappropriate.”

“It’s no longer socially acceptable to drive drunk. We need to get to the point that it’s not socially acceptable to not know your status,” Davis continued.

Davis estimates that 20 percent of HIV-positive people don’t know their status, and that those people are responsible for 50 percent of the new HIV infections. Davis is hopeful testing rates will increase once it’s covered by insurance. The Affordable Care Act mandates that insurance companies cover HIV testing in everyone aged 15-65, according to new United States Preventive Task Force recommendations.

In Alachua County, there are currently 894 people living with HIV/AIDS, according to the Health Department. This year, 51 people were diagnosed with HIV, and 33 with AIDS, according to the Health Department’s count. HIV, which stands for human immunodeficiency virus, can morph into AIDS if not properly treated with anti-viral medications.

“Eventually your immune system loses that battle, and viruses you already have in your body emerge,” said Davis.

“The key is early testing, seeking medical care and staying in it,” Davis continued. “If we find you at 20 years old (with HIV), and you’re compliant with medications, we expect you to live to be at least 75.”

Although medical advancements have made it possible to live with HIV, many people don’t know that. “There are a lot of people who think that once you’re HIV-positive, that your life is over — that you can’t date, or have kids,” said Burgess, now 29. “It’s not the end.”

For a while, Burgess stuck to dating sites for HIV-positive people. But then she started going on other sites, putting her status out there and making sure the men who contacted her had seen it. She eventually met the man to whom she is now engaged.

Since participating in the project, Burgess has received hundreds of questions from strangers. She said the project has been an empowering experience. “It’s helped me be more open than I was,” she said.

Burgess will attend today’s exhibit at the library.

The Alachua County Health Department holds HIV screenings every week at the following locations:

The first and third Thursday of every month at the Pride Community Center of North Central Florida at 3131 NW 13th St., Suite 61 in Gainesville, 5 p.m.-7 p.m.

The first and third Thursday of every month at BodyTech at 806 W. University Ave., 8 p.m.-10 p.m.

The first Sunday of every month at the University Club at 18 E. University Ave., 9 p.m.-midnight.

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