You don’t have to die alone from AIDS in Utah

Story and slideshow by SASCHA BLUME

Visit the Utah AIDS Foundation.

It was the day after Christmas, and it was 25 degrees outside with an abundance of snow on the ground. The building inside was bare, disorganized and in the middle of re-creating itself, the building was busy using the holiday weekend to install new paint and carpet.

The only room that was intact was the decorated memorial room.

The Utah AIDS Foundation was started in 1985 to battle the then AIDS epidemic and worldwide AIDS pandemic.

Today, the Utah AIDS Foundation, located at 1408 S. 1100 East in Salt Lake City, aims to prevent and eradicate AIDS.

In the 1980s and early 1990s there was a stigma around AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).

People thought they could get infected with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) by playing basketball with an HIV/AIDS-infected person.

People thought that if they shopped in a grocery store with an HIV-infected person they would get AIDS.

In response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the U.S. government provided funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and management for large cities/states.

The horrors of living with HIV/AIDS

The victims of AIDS vomit most of the day, they have continuous diarrhea, and develop purple blotch marks on their skin.

They lose their hair, their ability to eat and the function of their blood.

The intellectual and emotional damage a human who suffers from HIV/AIDS leads to self-isolation and a disproportionally high rate of suicide.

A plan was hatched

“No one talks about AIDS,” said Mario Duran, the MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) and HIV prevention coordinator for the Utah AIDS Foundation.

According to Duran, they want to end that stigma.

In response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, The Utah AIDS Foundation created a five-point program that is designed to educate the general public and HIV-positive men about HIV/AIDS.

The Five-Point Program

(1)  Testing

At the Utah AIDS Foundation, the general public is welcome and encouraged to come in for a free HIV/AIDS test Monday through Thursday. People are also encouraged to get tested for all sexually transmitted diseases while they are at the foundation.

Brianne Glenn, the HIV/STI testing coordinator for the Utah AIDS Foundation, says everyone who tests gets an “anonymous number and they are referred to, as their number” while they receive HIV/STI testing.

“About 100 to 200 people come in a month for testing and one to two people a month test positive for HIV/AIDS,” Glenn said.

When a person has a preliminary positive test, they are immediately given a more comprehensive HIV/AIDS test. This procedure is called a confirmatory test.

The Utah AIDS Foundation’s free testing isn’t just for gay men. Straight males/females, swinger groups, and any other type of sexually at-risk person is encouraged to participate in the free testing program.

(2)  Gays and Geeks

According to Duran, the Gays and Geeks club was started because “there is so much stigma around gay masculinity and hyper sexuality.” The Gays and Geeks program is designed for HIV-positive men to come together in a safe environment for friendship and support.

The program is also designed to break down gay social stereotypes. For example, there is a common stereotype that gay men are only interested in working out, wearing high end fashion and having promiscuous sex with as many partners as possible.

The group meets once a month, usually at a movie, park or somewhere “geek orientated.” The Gays and Geeks meetings typically host five to 20 people per outing.

(3) 3-D Doctors

Duran said the Doctors, Dudes and Dinner program was an idea that was “borrowed directly from a Baha’i tradition.”

The Utah AIDS Foundation and two volunteers from the University of Utah spend a significant amount of time locating a doctor and venue that is willing to host the event. During this program a doctor will give an hour-long lecture on their specialty. The lecture is then followed by a free dinner.

The Utah AIDS Foundation set up this program as a response to the social stereotypes that gay men face. Many of these stereotypes include the idea that gay men are unhealthy and make irresponsible sexual decisions that heighten their risk for HIV/AIDS infection.

Because there is so much focus on gay men’s sexual health, the Utah AIDS Foundation felt there was a need for gay men to receive free health advice concerning other health issues that they might deal with.

According to the Utah AIDS Foundation’s website, “each 3-D event has a different intriguing health topic, (travel health, relationships, self-compassion, nutrition, skin care, etc.).”

The website also states, “3-D is a stepping stone to start the conversation on normalizing health in conversations about the gay community because of the unique way 3D is structured.”

(4) Outreach

Often on the weekend you will see Duran and a group of highly trained volunteers canvass the downtown Salt Lake bars and nightclubs handing out sex kits.

These sex kits include two condoms, one packet of silicone lubricant, and several promotional cards highlighting the work and contact information for the Utah AIDS Foundation. Workers distribute 75,000 kits annually.

We want to “talk about sex openly, we want to get a contact list and we try to get people in to test,” Duran, said.

That is the reason why they canvass.

The Utah AIDS Foundation is not interested in ending gay sexual relations, even if, having sexual relations means an HIV-positive man is involved.

(5) Case Management

Despite the dramatic decrease in HIV/AIDS infectious disease cases, people still get HIV/AIDS. When a person tests positive for HIV/AIDS, the Utah AIDS Foundation relies on a few staff members to help them rehabilitate their lives. One of these people is Zoe Lewis, a case manager for the Utah AIDS Foundation.

“This is a place that fights for people,” Lewis said. Because the Utah AIDS Foundation has been helping people battle the virus for almost 30 years, it’s much easier for people to receive great medical treatment when under the support system of the Utah AIDS Foundation. Lewis explained that many people often get very confused and lost when they try to get medical and insurance help on their own.

Lewis is one of several case managers who make sure the HIV-positive man gets complete encouragement to fight the battle against the virus. Case managers make sure every person is “teamed up with doctors and have a health provider.” They also make sure the individual is introduced to a wide and vast support system. This is why the programs Gays and Geeks and 3-D exist. The Utah AIDS Foundation wants to ensure that all HIV-positive men receive not only physical life management skills but, they also want these HIV-positive men to be emotionally happy and stable.

In Utah, AIDS is not a death sentence

“Most clients are afraid to have sex because they are afraid to pass it on. Abstinence is not necessary for an HIV/AIDS-infected person,” Lewis said. “It’s quite possible to have a good sex life.”

Part of the Utah AIDS Foundation’s objective is to adapt to modern HIV/AIDS medical research and prevention techniques.

“Our programs are always trying to accommodate all people’s needs – that’s why, you always see change,” Duran, said.

Part of this worldwide intellectual change is: gay men who are HIV/AIDS-positive can have safe sex.  The Utah AIDS Foundation has numerous suggestions for safe-sex practice for men who have sex with men. These techniques include wearing condoms, practicing oral sex instead of anal sex and many other techniques.

Despite the Utah AIDS Foundation’s best attempt at getting people to consistently practice safe sex, people in Utah still get HIV/AIDS. Regardless of the modern medical advancement of curtailing HIV/AIDS there still is no clinically proven cure for the virus.

This means people still frequently die from HIV/AIDS.

There is a reason why the memorial room stayed intact during the foundation’s Christmas remodeling. No human dies alone at the Utah AIDS Foundation.