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HIV testing critical for better health and prevention

When I first found out I had HIV at age 27, I didn’t have any support. There was nowhere to turn. I went through homelessness, dire illness and emotional brokenness before I knew it could be any different. 
 Keith Howell

by Keith Howell

Special to the Tri-State Defender

When I first found out I had HIV at age 27, I didn’t have any support. There was nowhere to turn. I went through homelessness, dire illness and emotional brokenness before I knew it could be any different.

Thanks to the Memphis TGA Ryan White Program, I finally got the care I needed and I came to grasp the reality of my disease. I also grew to understand my ability to lead a normal and healthy life with HIV. As we near National HIV Testing Day on June 27, I urge everyone to get tested and know his/her status.

Testing is essential to combating HIV. With early detection, HIV-positive individuals can better defend themselves from the resulting side effects of this disease, before their health and lives hit damaging low points. They can immediately seek emotional support services and medication. And, by knowing their HIV status, they can also prevent the spread of HIV to others.

A number of organizations throughout Shelby County provide free, confidential testing, not just on National HIV Testing Day, but year-round. With free testing, there is no reason not to get tested. Testing is also quick, and easy. The test requires only a small amount of blood or saliva, and many testing centers provide your results within 20 minutes. For me, and everyone living well with HIV, diagnosis was the first step toward better health.

My HIV-positive diagnosis in 1997 came only as a mild surprise to me, because of the risky-behavior lifestyle I led at that time. I was not expecting it, nor was it shocking news. That diagnosis encouraged me to begin a process of seeking support and treatment, which now gives me a real and full life.

I found myself in difficult times after my diagnosis while living in Chicago and then North Carolina. I sought support groups and medical care sporadically, but I couldn’t afford necessary medications. I became increasingly sick, and lost my ability to care for myself at all. I was ill, I was suffering and I was homeless.

During that desperate time in my life, I made my way to Memphis, and eventually stayed at the Peabody House, a homeless shelter that houses people living with HIV/AIDS. The staff at Peabody House, funded by the Ryan White Program, provides meals and ensures that guests take their medications routinely. While there, I learned about this federal program and the essential support services the Ryan White Program provides for people like me. If I had found out sooner about the Ryan White Program, I would have been able to control my disease and my life sooner.

The Memphis TGA Ryan White Program provides free HIV-related health care, including assistance with medications, medical services, transportation, emotional support, nutritional counseling and more. With the help of the Ryan White Program, I’ve stabilized my disease and lead a productive life. The Ryan White Program provides the tools and support to take control of the disease and allows me to successfully manage my HIV, which is why I am an advocate for HIV testing. Once you know, you can get the help you need and live a longer, healthier life.

It’s better to know than not to know. HIV is not a death sentence. HIV does not define those who have the disease. The Ryan White Program helped me recognize that, and I want to help others understand that, too.

Memphis, especially, needs to hear this message. In the Memphis region, the number of people living with HIV/AIDS increased from 6,673 to 7,156 between 2008 and 2009. Of the people in the area living with HIV/AIDS, 42 percent are without any care, which includes a growing number of our youth population ages 16 to 24. These statistics have increased in recent years. It is time for Memphis to address the growing HIV epidemic. I urge fellow Memphians to get tested on June 27 and to be part of the solution.

To get a listing of National HIV Testing Day events in our community, find a testing center near you or read more information about HIV and the Ryan White Program, visit www.hivmemphis.org or text LINK2CARE to 27538 (standard texting rates apply). You can also call the HIV Care Hotline at (877) HIV-KNOW or (877) 448-5669.

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