David Cook: The fear of HIV is overrated

David Cook: The fear of HIV is overrated

June 29th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Sitting in the Urban League lobby on Wednesday, halfway into my 20-minute wait after being finger-pricked for an HIV test, I skimmed the front page of the Wall Street Journal, small-talked with two women on the couch to my right, checked my text messages (zero) and thought about having some of the Urban League's complimentary sweet tea but decided not to.

It was ... kind of boring. Dull. An ordinary 20 minutes.

The next day, I drank black coffee with James Ozmun, 41, who is HIV positive. We sat at his blue-tableclothed kitchen table with the morning sun coming through the thin drapes, a reprint of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" nearby. We talked for more than an hour about all the big stuff: religion, life, death, family.

He's a pretty good -- and pretty normal -- guy.

Sure, he's got HIV. Big deal.

"The fear of HIV is overrated," he said.

It's been 31 years since the first official medical report on AIDS, 22 years since Ryan White died, 21 years since Magic Johnson's HIV-positive announcement, yet HIV and AIDS still remain mostly mysterious. Fear -- within at-risk communities as well as the communities at large -- may play a larger role in HIV than actual illness, with the biggest consequence of carrying the virus unrelated to being sick.

"Stigma," Ozmun said.

Stigma is what you get when fear is stronger than fact. Between three 21st-century illnesses -- AIDS, Alzheimer's and cancer -- which are we most afraid of? Smokers aren't ashamed of saying "cancer," yet we still keep HIV-positive folks in the closet.

Ozmun talks about seeing people hide when going to get tested, their faces hidden behind magazines, hoping no one in the waiting room spots them.

Let's be honest: How much does it matter if your co-worker is positive? Your boss? Neighbor down the street? In Sunday school?

"I know it's hard work for people to accept us," Ozmun said, "but if they'd just give the HIV-positive community a chance.''

Wednesday was National Testing Day for HIV/AIDS. Chattanoogans could get free 20-minute tests at three locations. While the riskiest behavior I engage in these days is trying to stay awake past Jay Leno, I went in a somewhat vain but hopefully effective attempt. If I'm encouraging others to get tested, I should, too.

"I think I'm saving people's lives," said Natacia Reyes, of Chattanooga CARES, who conducted the testing on Wednesday.

A few questions, then a finger stick ("I'm the best pricker," Reyes claimed) and then the 20 minutes. It takes me longer to mow the yard. Sitting through reruns of "Two and a Half Men'' is more work. By far.

However, there remains what Washington Post writer Jonathan Capehart has called a "five-alarm-fire" within the black community with AIDS.

Nearly 60 percent of those testing HIV positive in Hamilton County in 2009 were black, despite blacks being only 20 percent of the population, according to Jennifer Martin of Southeast Tennessee Council for HIV/AIDS Care and Prevention. Across the state, black Tennesseans are 65 percent of the infected.

Ozmun, who is white, lives with five other HIV-positive Chattanoogans at The Home Place, a community home run by Catholic Charities, and a place Ozmun said has saved his life.

So while Ozmun -- healthy and taking medicines each night -- plans to "live a full life," there remains the biggest threat of HIV: Those engaging in risky behaviors who go untested. This is where the word "epidemic" is appropriate.

"It is still a crisis," said Martin.

Ozmun was diagnosed in 2005 ("August 31"). He thinks the virus came from a partner who was positive yet kept quiet. Ozmun's story -- before HIV and after -- is heroic, troubling and profound.

But it's not mine to tell.

And it shouldn't matter anyway.