ELLSWORTH – There are roughly 1,500 people in Maine living with HIV. That’s according to the Health Equity Alliance, an organization that hosted a dinner to raise awareness on Sunday.
“Even with all the advances, people living in rural areas like Maine still face a lot of stigma associated with HIV,” said David Johnston, a client at Health Equity Alliance.
December 1st is recognized as World AIDS Day, and Sunday at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, volunteers with Health Equity Alliance were prepping for a dinner to commemorate that day.
Johnston, of Hancock, has been living with HIV since the 1980’s, and said there needs to be more education about the virus.
“Especially young people who didn’t live through the dark times with all the deaths, are still afraid to hug somebody with HIV because they’re afraid they could catch it that way because they’ve not received any education in school,” said Johnston.
Not only was Sunday’s dinner to raise awareness, but it was to honor those lost to HIV and AIDS related illnesses.
Johnston said he can’t begin to count the number of people he knows that have passed away.
“When I lived in Atlanta I was going to a funeral every week, that was in the late 80’s, early 90’s,” he said.
So Johnston moved back home to Maine and became a client of Health Equity Alliance, then known as the Down East AIDS Network.
He said new medications have helped people that are HIV positive live longer and healthier lives.
A campaign Health Equity Alliance is trying to bring awareness to is “U = U”, or undetectable equals untransmittable.
“It means if you are undetectable and have an undetectable viral load in your blood, you cannot transmit the disease to your partner,” said Lisa Skiff, a former medical case manager at Health Equity Alliance.
Skiff said the rate of people being diagnosed has gone down in recent years.
“As long as we’re vigilant and know the knowledge, it’s a lot less scary,” she said.
Health Equity Alliance, which has locations in Ellsworth, Bangor, Machias, and Belfast, offers free HIV testing.