HIV-Positive Woman Seeks to Reduce Stigma

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There are more than 780,000 people in the U.S. who have HIV/AIDS, and nearly one in five HIV-positive people are unknowingly living with the virus. Many of those people who carry a positive diagnosis do not have proper access to testing or follow-up care, leading to greater transmission of the disease and much sicker patients when they actually do go to see a doctor about symptoms. Rates of HIV in the U.S. have held steady at about 50,000 per year, the highest rate out of any developed country in the world.

By having candid discussions about sex and drugs and STD status that present the topics with a level of comfort and camaraderie, Heard has helped countless women into treatment and toward a healthier life.

"We have pretty provocative talks," she said. "Often times, people aren't using scientific terms for body parts. They're using words they hear on the street."

And that's OK. Her main goal is to create a haven for girls and women to talk about their health concerns in a way that they may never have before.

"We're dealing with a lot of people who have bad information from the start," said Heard. "Black men don't want to be considered gay and women don't want others to think they've had a lot of partners or they'll be considered a slut. This is the reality of people's thoughts."

People in impoverished communities are hit with many more barriers than those who do not live in such areas, said Dr. Mary Paul, chief of retrovirology and global health at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston.

"Taking daily HIV treatments, transportation to appointments, problems with insurance and coverage, coverage for co-pays, having pharmacies in convenient locations, staying organized enough to take medications every day -- these are things that need to be accounted for once diagnosed as HIV positive."

Paul said it is programs like Women's Collective and people like Heard who are going to make a difference in getting to the heart of these HIV hot spots in the U.S.

"None of this happens overnight," said Heard. People don't just open up to her, but after continued sessions and helping them to understand that Women's Collective wants to help them live healthier lives, "once we get some confidence in them, then you can talk with them about their status, and help them advocate for themselves," said Heard.

This story is the second of Mikaela Conley's four-part series on HIV Hot Spots in America. Her reporting is supported by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism.

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