The AIDS epidemic was a tragic era in American history, but it's kind of yesterday's news, right?
|Denise Neiding, left, who is HIV positive, listens to Kenyetta White speak at BGSU. (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
And if you're not a gay male, it really isn't anything to be worried about anyway.
Unless you talk to Denise Neiding.
The 62-year-old Toledo grandmother has been HIV-positive since 2008. Being white and middle class didn't protect her.
"I was married for over 20 years until my husband left me for a much-younger woman." Trying to feel better about herself, and boost her severely damaged ego, Neiding admits, "I got a little rebellious and had a little promiscuous spell in my life."
She paid dearly for that spell.
Neiding was a featured panelist at the "Voices of Women Affected by HIV/AIDS" program held Wednesday in the Women's Center at Bowling Green State University.
Betsy Bunner, AIDS education director at the university, reminded: "It's not who you are, but what you do that puts you at risk for HIV."
And increasingly, women are becoming the most common face of the disease.
"Worldwide, women are disproportionately affected, just because when we look at biological factors, it's easier to transmit" via heterosexual intercourse because the vaginal lining is a larger area than is the case with men's anatomy, Bunner said.
Worldwide, 63 percent of all young people ages 15-24 living with HIV are females.
"In the U.S. we may have had more men (in the AIDS-affected population) but we are moving in the same direction" as the world-at-large, where AIDS can no longer be considered primarily a disease of the gay community.
Bunner offered more sobering statistics:
• Heterosexuals accounted for 25 percent of estimated new HIV infections in 2010. New infections among women are attributed to heterosexual contact (84 percent) or IV drug use (16 percent).
• Women accounted for 20 percent of new HIV infections and 24 percent of those living with HIV.
"People think maybe it's gone away," said Bunner. "It hasn't. There are 50,000 new infections each year in the U.S."
Here's a main reason why the disease continues to spread:
An estimated 1 in 5 HIV-infected Americans are unaware of their infection, and these persons account for more than half of all new infections.
Since it can take up to a decade for an HIV-carrier to show symptoms, there is not necessarily anyone to blame, panelists agreed.
For Neiding, it wasn't until she went on a three-week vacation to visit friends in Trinidad that she began to feel ill with what she thought was the flu.
"The first week down there I didn't feel well. The second week I was in bed sick, and the third week I was so sick I didn't think they'd let me on the plane" but she was determined to get to a U.S. hospital.
She made it back to Toledo, where she was diagnosed with viral meningitis, e-coli "and, I found out later, HIV."
The HIV wasn't discovered until a second hospitalization, when Neiding was asked: "Do you want to be tested for HIV?" She agreed, even though, as a 57-year-old, it seemed a remote possibility.
"Because of my age they did it (the test) twice" but it came back positive each time.
When Neiding received the diagnosis her immediate reaction was "I'm gonna be sick, I'm gonna die."
Now, more than five years later, she considers herself fortunate.
"The medicine works for me, although it doesn't always work for everybody. It's very expensive. It costs $1,800 a month."
As it turns out, the greatest burden of being HIV-positive isn't feeling unwell; she doesn't. And it's not her appearance, which is perfectly normal. "It's the stigma."
Panelist Kenyetta White agreed stigma is the worst thing about AIDS.
"People still feel like it's the plague. They don't want to hug you."
That's why for years, Neiding was unwilling to date anyone, although she now has a supportive boyfriend.
"It's a federal crime if you don't disclose your HIV-positive status before having sex with someone," she said. "You can go to prison for four years."
White doesn't have HIV but is employed with the Ryan White Program at University of Toledo Medical Center, which helps cover the expenses of HIV/AIDS medications for Neiding and others.
White, 41, says it is guilt that propelled her into a lifelong career fighting AIDS.
She told the BGSU audience about a favorite step-sister, Bobetta, who served in the U.S. military and "when she got out of service began dating a man."
Ten years later Bobetta, who had been living in New York, returned to Toledo.
"It was a Wednesday. She called and said 'Hey, I'm in town'" and wanted to meet with her siblings. They agreed on the following Monday.
On Friday she called again and warned White, "I don't look the same."
On Saturday the siblings called Bobetta and told her something had come up, they needed to reschedule. "We'll see you next week.
"But next week never came. She died that Monday."
Bobetta had never revealed the truth to her family. She had decided to try to reenlist and the military physical revealed she was HIV-positive.
"She got AIDS from a guy who gave it to 18 women here" in northwest Ohio.
Due to either religious beliefs or shame, she never went to doctors and never took AIDS medicine, dying at 32 of a disease that in this era is considered chronic, rather than deadly.
Here are some sobering HIV/AIDS statistics for the United States:
• It is estimated that 1 to 1.2 million Americans are living with AIDS or HIV.
• Approximately 53 percent of those diagnosed with AIDS have died.
• Hispanic women have infection rates 4.2 times that of white females and Hispanic men have infection rates 2.9 times that of white males.
• African Americans represent about 12 percent of the population, but account for roughly 44 percent of new HIV infections.
• Unless the course of the epidemic changes, an estimated 1 in 16 black men and 1 in 32 black women will be diagnosed with AIDS.
• In the U.S., one person is infected every 9 1/2 minutes.
Some worldwide statistics:
• There were 34 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide in 2011.
• 63 percent of all young people ages 15-24 living with HIV are young women.
• 50 percent of people living with HIV do not know they have the virus.
• The rate of new HIV infections has been halved in 25 low- and middle-income countries between 2001 and 2011.
• Another 2.5 million people acquired HIV in 2011.
U.S. statistics are from a 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
The worldwide figures are from the World Health Organization.