published Friday, April 29th, 2011

New HIV cases energize public health initiatives

HIV was the last thing on Ashton’s mind on Jan. 15. Then the phone rang.

“I had donated plasma,” he said, “and [the positive test] came back on those results.”

Ashton said he never used drugs, and it never occurred to him that a few incidences of unprotected sex could put him at risk.

“I was dumbfounded,” he said. “Everybody thinks nothing negative is ever going to happen, but it’s kind of like a wake-up call that stuff you hear about can happen to anyone.”

Ashton, who spoke to the Chattanooga Times Free Press on the condition he be identified by first name only, grew up in Rhea County. He is 24.

According to a recent report in the Nashville Tennessean, there was a marked increase in HIV diagnoses in Tennessee among people under age 30 between 2005 and 2009. In 2005 there were 160 new diagnosis statewide in that age group; in 2009 there were 203 cases, according to state health officials.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story, said Thomas Shavor, director of HIV/AIDS/STD surveillance and data management at the Tennessee Department of Health.

“Percentages with small numbers are challenging,” said Shavor. “One to two is a 100 percent increase, but that’s one person.”

The average yearly increase over that span has been less than 7 percent, he said.

In Hamilton County, there were six cases of HIV diagnosed among people ages 15-24 in 2005 and 13 such cases in 2009.

Chattanooga CARES, a local organization dedicated to HIV/AIDS outreach, sponsors numerous education programs.

“The No. 1 thing to know is that [HIV/AIDS] is still there,” said assistant director Jerry Evans. “You can get it from having unprotected sex. That’s the No. 1 thing we try to get across.”

Chattanooga CARES has a speakers bureau of HIV-positive men and women who will talk to groups about their personal experiences.

Ashton is thinking about becoming a speaker, he said.

“People are not cautious. It’s something people think is never going to happen to them,” he said.

Evans said AIDS educators are also not able to have frank discussions about sex with students because school officials are squeamish about the subject matter.

Ashton said he hopes to spread a message of caution to students and young people.

“When you have sex, use protection,” he said. “It probably happened [to me] when I didn’t use protection. You can never be too cautious.”

Ashton has been in a relationship for about a year and a half. His partner, he said, is HIV negative. “We’re still together, and we live together. He’s really supportive, he still loves me and cares about me. Really nothing has changed in that.”

Ashton said he receives funding for medication through the Ryan White CARE Act, a federal program for providing care and treatment for those infected. He takes Atripla, a pill combining three HIV medications. Now, Evans said, people can live with HIV, with no symptoms for 25 years.

“People will more likely die with HIV and not from HIV,” he said.

Before his diagnosis, Ashton had, to his knowledge, never met anyone with HIV, he said. “I thought somebody who had it would look real sick, they’d be real skinny, unhealthy, like that. That’s not really the case.”

He weighs 220 pounds and is over 6 feet tall, he said. He is asymptotic. He is learning to live life as an HIV-positive man.

“At first I was sad and angry. I didn’t want to be around anybody and didn’t want to talk to anyone,” he said. “I just thought that everyone was going to hate me and not want to have anything to do with me, but it’s not like that.

“Everyone I know who knows has been real supportive. I still go out and walk in the park, go to the mall. I still live life just normal. Some days I’ll get upset about it, but that doesn’t usually last for very long.”

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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