'I was embarrassed:' HIV stigma lingers as treatment improves

DENVER — Friday is World AIDS Day, a day to remember that HIV is still a problem in Denver and around the world.

"There's a sense of shame to it. I was embarrassed. I didn't know what was going to happen," Phillip Doyle said, recalling the day he learned about his HIV positive status in 2008.

At one time that was a death sentence, but for Doyle it meant he had to do his part to stay alive.

He's now living an active, healthy life in Denver. He works at Denver Public Health as an outreach worker to other HIV patients.

"The people who took care of me said they could rebuild my immune system and that I would have to take part in that process," Doyle said.

He still has the virus, but taking medicine helps slow it down.

Since the AIDS epidemic, treatment for HIV/AIDS has come a long way. It was a major cause of death in Denver back in the mid-90s, said Bill Burman, Executive Director of Denver Public Health.

"I remember those days really well," Burman, an HIV care provider in the mid-90s, said.

Around 8,000 people were estimated to have HIV in the Denver Metro last year, and 88 percent of people diagnosed and in care had suppressed the virus.

"We can control HIV, and when we control HIV, we can reverse its effects on the individual. Probably the key story in the last ten years is the realization that in addition to the benefits of the individual complete control of HIV, also means that they can't transmit it," Burman said.

Another breakthrough in HIV medicine was the release of the PrEP pill or pre-exposure prophylaxis. 

"One of the same medications that we can use to treat HIV can also prevent HIV, and so people who have a high risk for HIV, but don't yet have it, they can take this pill and markedly decrease their chance of getting HIV — probably 90 percent," Burman said. 

Doyle adds people who think they're infected should get tested.

"Don't be afraid of the result; the result is the important thing," Doyle said. 

Click here to find an HIV/STD testing location.

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