This Thursday, April 29, marks the seventeenth annual Dining Out For Life event where you eat at one of more than 140 local restaurants and they donate a share of the profits to Saint Louis Effort for AIDS, 25-year-old organization that provides support services to people who have AIDS and HIV.
They also provide AIDS education. A couple of weeks ago, Cheryl Oliver, the group's executive director, and Matthew Palmer, the director of operations, sat down to bombard Daily RFT with information about AIDS and HIV. The barrage was welcome since we hadn't had any AIDS education since junior high. That was a very long time ago, back when HIV was considered a sure death sentence.
The good news is that things have changed.
"It's no longer a death sentence," says Palmer. "But it's a life sentence, if you test positive."
"There's no cure," Oliver explains. "It's treatable and preventable, but people who have it live with it and die with it." HIV doesn't have "remission" the way cancer does. And an AIDS diagnosis never goes away, even if the number of T-cells goes back up.
There are currently upwards of 5,000 cases of AIDS in the St. Louis region. Saint Louis Effort for AIDS treats slightly more than one-fifth of those patients.
"HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for African-American women between 24 and 35," says Oliver, "and most of them don't know they're at risk." (Among African-American men the same age, it's number two.)
"They think they're feeling poorly," adds Palmer. "They think they've got the flu or a chronic yeast infection, and the doctor doesn't think to test them for HIV." Many of these women are in heterosexual, monogamous (at least on their side) relationships.
Part of the reason many HIV patients don't know they're at risk until they're diagnosed is because of general reluctance to discuss AIDS, which is still perceived as a "lifestyle choice," says Oliver, and because, unlike breast cancer, it's primarily a sexually-transmitted disease. (Though many HIV cases contracted in prisons come from tattoos, not sex.)
The most at-risk population is no longer young gay men. The number of cases among African-Americans, Hispanics and, in St. Louis, Bosnians has risen sharply. "Within ten years," says Palmer, "50 percent of the HIV population will be over fifty."
"It's a combination of Viagra and menopause," Oliver comments dryly. "People think, 'I can't get pregnant, so I'm not going to worry.'"
Although an HIV patient's T-cell count can be controlled with medication, Atripla, the pill of first resort, costs $1,755.50 per month. "You have to take the drugs at the same time every day," Palmer explains. "If you don't, the virus will mutate around the drug and the drug will no longer be effective. So you move to the next group, until you run out of drugs."
The mutations can affect other patients as well. "If I have HIV and don't take the drugs properly," Palmer continues, "now I have a virus that's resistant to medication. If I sleep with you and infect you, you inherit all my resistance."
Palmer and Oliver warn that it can take up to six months to test positive for HIV. "If you get tested and have had unprotected sex within the last month, make an appointment to get tested again," says Oliver.
Many patients contract HIV in conjunction with another sexually-transmitted disease. "St. Louis has the lovely distinction of being in the top three in the U.S. for syphilis," explains Palmer. "If you're exposed to syphilis, you could be exposed to HIV. The two together wreak so much havoc on the immune system, it's like one plus one equals three."
Saint Louis Effort for AIDS helps arrange medication for patients, as well as counseling and housing, if they need it. Says Oliver: "We want to help raise awareness and eliminate the stigma, fear and hate."
If she had $100,000, says Oliver, she would organize a full-on advertising blitz with commercials like this one, produced by Cable Positive: