HIV survivors ready to talk

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aidsWhen Linda learned that she and her newborn daughter were HIV-positive, the shocked Oakland woman went on a five-year drug and alcohol binge.

"I thought I was going to die soon and my baby was going to die -- I'd given her a death sentence," Linda said. "I felt worthless."

But she didn't die. Linda, 37, who asked that her last name be withheld, ultimately sought help for her addiction to crack cocaine and got HIV counseling. Now drug-free, she's seen her daughter grow into a confident 17-year-old. Both say many people remain woefully ignorant about what the federal Centers for Disease Control calls "an epidemic in the African American community."

Stories like Linda's are being highlighted today, World AIDS Day, with a new mobilization in the East Bay by several nonprofit organizations to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS in the African American community.

"There's still a lot of people who don't know, and there's still a lot who are in denial and won't get themselves tested," Linda said in an interview.

AIDS is a leading cause of death for African Americans, who accounted for nearly half of newly diagnosed HIV/AIDS cases last year, even though they are only 12 percent of the population. African Americans accounted for 66 percent of women with AIDS in 2005 and 67 percent of children under 13 with AIDS.

The local campaign includes 15 new billboards and free HIV testing over three days. Groups supporting the mobilization include the AIDS Project East Bay, Cal-Pep and 100 Black Women of the Bay Area.

Scheduled to be first in line for today's HIV testing in Oakland are Oakland's congresswoman, Barbara Lee; Oakland Mayor-elect Ron Dellums; and several other local community and political leaders.

"There's a real need out there for information and of people being active in this effort," said Paulette Hogan, who is HIV-positive and gives speeches to inspire others living with HIV and AIDS.

"We are standing up," said Hogan, former chairwoman of the Ryan White Planning Council for Alameda and Contra Costa counties. "We are moving out of our closets. We cannot continue to hide."

Health advocates say AIDS has long been a taboo subject among African Americans because of its social stigma as a sexually transmitted disease that mainly strikes gay men. And many people still don't know the basics of how it's spread and how to protect themselves.

In 1988, Linda was a young woman who liked to party. She used cocaine and had casual sex, but knew almost nothing about AIDS or that she was at risk of contracting the disease because of her lifestyle.

She was infected by a casual boyfriend who was secretly bisexual. She then conceived a baby with another man. When the child was born, it took doctors three weeks to figure out why it was so sickly.

"Then they tested her for AIDS, and she was positive," Linda said, recalling her baby's diagnosis. "I said, 'Hell no. Not me.' They said that's the only way, that I had given my baby AIDS. I left her in the hospital -- I couldn't deal with it."

Struggling with feelings of shock, guilt and denial, Linda's drug use turned into an addiction. The baby was raised by her grandmother.

Over the next five years, relatives would often try to talk Linda off the street corners of Oakland where drugs are sold. She kept refusing until one day she simply realized she wasn't going to die.

Linda still struggles with her addiction, but she regularly attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings and HIV support groups. She also has had three other children, all born HIV-negative because she took the drugs AZT and Bactrim to prevent the virus from being transmitted to the fetuses.

"If I had done that with her, I could have avoided all that," Linda said of her daughter, her voice filled with regret.

Linda's daughter, who asked that her name be withheld because many people don't know she was born with HIV, said many children know only what they hear on the street about AIDS.

"When I was in elementary school, the kids used to make fun of HIV and AIDS," she said, recalling an incident that happened when she was 9 years old. "My sister told one of her friends, and the girl came up to me and said, 'You got HIP?' "

As a child, she attended a special camp for HIV-positive children and has several friends who also have the virus, but does not generally share her status with others.

The girl, who has a wide smile, is in good physical condition. She said having HIV had a profound impact on how she views life.

"I think now I can't discriminate," she said, referring to attitudes about other types of people. "I have a good understanding of life. I never take anything for granted."

African Americans represent almost half of the total HIV cases reported in Alameda County from 2002 to 2005, with the majority coming from Oakland. And while 39 percent of men living with AIDS at the end of 2004 were African American, 64 percent of women with AIDS were African American, according to data from the Alameda County Department of Public Health.

AIDS activist Hogan, 43, who was diagnosed five years ago, said advances in medicine have enabled those with HIV to live longer, more active lives. She said it's important for social institutions like black churches to take a leading role in educating the community and providing emotional support to those with the virus.

Linda is considering taking part in some of the HIV/AIDS-awareness events but is nervous because she's never shared her story publicly. Using her experiences to help others would be a major step in her ongoing recovery, she said.

"I'm way more educated than I was 17 years ago," Linda said, adding that she's grown closer to her daughter in recent years.

"I don't think she's mad at me no more," Linda said tentatively, her head slightly bowed.

"I never was mad at you," her daughter said, looking at Linda with a smile.

source - SF Gate