INDIANAPOLIS — December 1 is World AIDS Day.
It's a time for people to unite in the fight against HIV and to show support for those living with HIV or AIDS. Here in Indianapolis the Damien Center has been serving people with HIV since 1987.
They provide free testing and prevention care for people at risk of contracting HIV. Major medical advancements have made living with HIV and AIDS manageable, but there is still a stigma surrounding people who have it. Jeffery Tuttle was diagnosed with AIDS in 2001.
"A lot of things changed with people and friends with my boyfriend at the time,” Tuttle said. “I had none of that left you know."
Tuttle was in the hospital for eight months after his diagnosis. Once he was healthier, he came to the Damien Center where they provided him with the help and resources that he needed.
They did so at time when he felt abandoned by the people closest to him.
"It saved my life,” Tuttle said. “I walked in at 98 pounds, and I didn't feel loved. I didn't feel cared for, I didn't feel worthy. If you don't feel worth it affects your drive to continue forward through your obstacles with your health."
Now Tuttle lives a normal life. He says when he first started taking treatment for his AIDS diagnosis, he was taking 26 pills a day and was getting sick regularly.
Now, he takes one shot every other month and says his health is much better and he is undetectable meaning he can’t pass HIV on to anyone even though he was once diagnosed. However, he says the stigma around HIV and AIDS was tough especially when he was first in the hospital.
“They put me in a cancer ward in a room by myself,” Tuttle said. “They didn’t know what to do with me. Only a few nurses would help other nurses refused to even come into my room. I am hoping and I am sure that has all changed.”
While things have changed for the better with medical advancements, the Damien Center says young people often forget about how dangerous the virus can be still.
"When we got the medications that we have today we were able to bring that death rate way down and that's great,” Alan Witchey, the president and CEO of the Damien Center said. “In a lot of ways, it can also be a double-edged sword where people don't always think about the danger anymore.
Witchey says that CDC estimates there are still about 1,000 people in the city of Indianapolis that are living with HIV and don’t know they have it. This is why people like Tuttle and the Damien Center want to remind people to know their status.
"People think 'Oh my gosh I can't afford to get tested, oh my gosh I can't afford to get into medical care', and they don't realize they can come here and get it all for free," Witchey said.
The Damien Center says one thing they are monitoring is new cases of HIV.
They say during the pandemic fewer people were getting tested and some people stopped taking medications like prep which prevents the transmission of HIV.
So far, they haven't seen a spike in new cases.
For information about what resources the Damien Center provides click here.
For services outside of Indianapolis click here.
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