25-year survivor of “death sentence” has message at free HIV testing event in York

York

YORK, Pa. (WHTM) — She got the news while living in Florida in 1996. Did she expect to be talking about it in York a quarter-century later?

“Oh no,” laughed 65-year-old Helen, who declined to provide her last name. “I didn’t think I’d be over two years.”

Back then, there were two HIV statuses — negative and positive — and finding out you were positive was a “death sentence,” Helen said Monday, speaking outside a free HIV testing event at Family First Health in York.

Now she used a third word to describe her status: “Undetectable. Because I take my medicine when I’m supposed to.”

People who are HIV positive but undetectable have such low viral loads that they might no longer test positive and might no longer transmit the virus to others through the usual means, such as sexual contact.

But getting to that point means taking the right medication, which nowadays might mean just one daily pill or even just one monthly injection, down from multiple daily pills in previous decades. And taking the right medication means getting tested.

Everyone age 13 to 64 should get tested once, said Becky Wilson, the coordinator for Family First Health’s “Caring Together” program. People with elevated risk profiles, such as those with “multiple sexual partners, unprotected sex or if they’ve had exposure, we really encourage people to get tested as needed every three to six months,” Wilson said.

Testing and awareness events such as Monday’s are back in style after a year-long hiatus because of the pandemic, but you don’t need to wait for an event to get tested free. Free testing happens every day at Family First Health, 116 South George Street in York. It’s free and confidential. You don’t need an appointment. And you don’t need to be a Family First patient.

Helen said that although modern HIV treatments are unambiguously good news, one side-effect is that less concern about a possible HIV “death sentence” could cause people to let down their guard, in terms of preventing infection.

“You have to be careful, you know,” she said. “Even though you’re out with somebody you think is safe, if that woman has been with two other men, how many other women have them two men been with? And it just keeps going up like that.”

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