HOUSTON – Right now, there are more than 1.1 million people in the United States living with HIV. Research shows the deep south has the highest rates of HIV diagnosis.
While advanced treatments have made it possible for people with HIV to live normal lives and not pass the virus to others, stigmas continue to plague the fight against it.
“I was so depressed at the time, I had no thought process of it and really I was preparing myself to die,” said Marnina Miller.
The 31-year-old has been living with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus for eight years now.
“When I got to Texas Southern, I started dating a guy, and we got pretty serious, and about a year into our dating relationship, I said, ‘Hey, let’s go get tested together. And when we did go get tested, we found out that both of us were living with HIV,” Miller said.
She said she never experienced the flu-like symptoms that can accompany the virus.
“There are so many symptoms of an HIV diagnosis, but I didn’t have any. What I really had was my woman intuition,” Miller said.
What Miller immediately knew she didn’t have, was her partner’s support.
“It’s pretty traumatic. He actually left me at the clinic,” Miller said.
Nearly two years after being diagnosed, fear and a lack of understanding still prevented Miller from seeking treatment.
A study called “The State of HIV Stigma,” released this year by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation— or GLAAD, shows less than half of Americans feel knowledgeable about HIV.
Miller admits she was one of them.
“I didn’t want that to be my story, and so, I kind of ignored it for a while,” Miller said.
HIV weakens the human body’s ability to fight infections and diseases.
It’s most commonly spread through unprotected sex with a person living with unsuppressed HIV or sharing needles with someone who is HIV positive.
Overwhelmed by the thought of death, Miller gave up hope until she thought about her two nieces and couldn’t stand the thought of not being there for them.
“When I first started treatment, I was scared, as a lot of folks are, and I was really nervous about how that would affect my body,” Miller said.
Like others who begin HIV treatment, within months Miller became undetectable, which means her viral load was suppressed to the point where she can’t pass HIV to her partners.
On the other hand, Marcus Stanley, who works for the Sustain Center, which is focused on connecting people to resources dealing with HIV, said there are so many others here in the Houston Metro area who continue to be affected by stigmas and ignorance and never get the help needed to stop the spread.
“Here in Houston, there’s a little over 29,000 people who are living with HIV. About 75% of them have made it to one medical visit. However, from that 75%, only about 60% retain the care,” Stanley said.
The most recent data released from a collaborative study with the Houston Health Department shows that in 2018, the Houston Metro Area had the highest HIV diagnosis rate of any metro area in the state.
Stanley said minorities and those in lower-income areas are disproportionately affected by the virus.
“Where individuals live, do they have access and accessibility to actually go to those appointments? Do they have access and accessibility to actually afford their medication?” Stanley said.
Stanley added that many people aren’t aware of the treatment options available for those not only living with HIV, but also others hoping to prevent contracting it.
“PreP is a medication that individuals who are HIV negative can take to prevent themselves from becoming HIV positive, there’s about a 96% prevention rate,” Stanley said.
As far as treatment for people already living with HIV, in addition to daily pills, there’s also now a once-a-month injectable medication. Still, Stanley knows it will take more than treatments being made available to end the HIV epidemic.
“I think a lot of times, a lot of the pressure is put on the individuals. I think as an organization, as a community in the HIV field, we have to do more to reach individuals where they are,” Stanley said.
Miller agrees and is now determined to reclaim her life and use her story to help support others by working with the Southern AIDS Coalition as an outreach coordinator.
“I’m now happy. I’m healthy. I’m undetectable. I now have two amazing nieces that I love. My life has come full circle,” Miller said.
The Houston Health Department reported that as of 2018, there were nearly 7,000 people in our area living with HIV who don’t even know they have it. Someone could have HIV for up to 10 years and not even show any signs of illness.
Tools that can help you if you have more questions about HIV
- The 2021 State of HIV Stigma Study: https://www.glaad.org/endhivstigma
- Southern AIDS Coalition is a Gilead COMPASS Coordinating Center and they released their study on HIV trends in the South: https://southernaidscoalition.org/hiv-trends-report/
- A tool that tracks HIV cases in communities: https://aidsvu.org/local-data/united-states/south/texas/
- How to reach Marcus Stanley: Mastanl3@central.uh.edu
- How to reach Marnina Miller: Marnina@southernaidscoalition.org