published Friday, June 29th, 2012

David Cook: The fear of HIV is overrated

Sitting in the Urban League lobby on Wednesday, halfway into my 20-minute wait after being finger-pricked for an HIV test, I skimmed the front page of the Wall Street Journal, small-talked with two women on the couch to my right, checked my text messages (zero) and thought about having some of the Urban League's complimentary sweet tea but decided not to.

It was ... kind of boring. Dull. An ordinary 20 minutes.

The next day, I drank black coffee with James Ozmun, 41, who is HIV positive. We sat at his blue-tableclothed kitchen table with the morning sun coming through the thin drapes, a reprint of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" nearby. We talked for more than an hour about all the big stuff: religion, life, death, family.

He's a pretty good -- and pretty normal -- guy.

Sure, he's got HIV. Big deal.

"The fear of HIV is overrated," he said.

It's been 31 years since the first official medical report on AIDS, 22 years since Ryan White died, 21 years since Magic Johnson's HIV-positive announcement, yet HIV and AIDS still remain mostly mysterious. Fear -- within at-risk communities as well as the communities at large -- may play a larger role in HIV than actual illness, with the biggest consequence of carrying the virus unrelated to being sick.

"Stigma," Ozmun said.

Stigma is what you get when fear is stronger than fact. Between three 21st-century illnesses -- AIDS, Alzheimer's and cancer -- which are we most afraid of? Smokers aren't ashamed of saying "cancer," yet we still keep HIV-positive folks in the closet.

Ozmun talks about seeing people hide when going to get tested, their faces hidden behind magazines, hoping no one in the waiting room spots them.

Let's be honest: How much does it matter if your co-worker is positive? Your boss? Neighbor down the street? In Sunday school?

"I know it's hard work for people to accept us," Ozmun said, "but if they'd just give the HIV-positive community a chance.''

Wednesday was National Testing Day for HIV/AIDS. Chattanoogans could get free 20-minute tests at three locations. While the riskiest behavior I engage in these days is trying to stay awake past Jay Leno, I went in a somewhat vain but hopefully effective attempt. If I'm encouraging others to get tested, I should, too.

"I think I'm saving people's lives," said Natacia Reyes, of Chattanooga CARES, who conducted the testing on Wednesday.

A few questions, then a finger stick ("I'm the best pricker," Reyes claimed) and then the 20 minutes. It takes me longer to mow the yard. Sitting through reruns of "Two and a Half Men'' is more work. By far.

However, there remains what Washington Post writer Jonathan Capehart has called a "five-alarm-fire" within the black community with AIDS.

Nearly 60 percent of those testing HIV positive in Hamilton County in 2009 were black, despite blacks being only 20 percent of the population, according to Jennifer Martin of Southeast Tennessee Council for HIV/AIDS Care and Prevention. Across the state, black Tennesseans are 65 percent of the infected.

Ozmun, who is white, lives with five other HIV-positive Chattanoogans at The Home Place, a community home run by Catholic Charities, and a place Ozmun said has saved his life.

So while Ozmun -- healthy and taking medicines each night -- plans to "live a full life," there remains the biggest threat of HIV: Those engaging in risky behaviors who go untested. This is where the word "epidemic" is appropriate.

"It is still a crisis," said Martin.

Ozmun was diagnosed in 2005 ("August 31"). He thinks the virus came from a partner who was positive yet kept quiet. Ozmun's story -- before HIV and after -- is heroic, troubling and profound.

But it's not mine to tell.

And it shouldn't matter anyway.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
aae1049 said...

"The fear of HIV is overrated," he said. This is the language of stupid people. That's right, stupid people. An autoimmune disease is very serious, and adversely impacts people in the quality of their life, including economically. This dismissive language minimizes the reality of HIV and full blown aids, which is better managed, but still very serious. It was nightmarish in the 80's watching people you cared die a horrible death, and today not all respond to new medications. So, take a reality pill, sure people with HIV can live, and manage it, but it is still very serious.

June 29, 2012 at 12:17 a.m.

I don't think you understood the point of this story, which was about how the fear of HIV and AIDS was making people not talk about it, not get tested, and not respond appropriately.

So it's more the fear leading to sticking your head in the sand than not being concerned about it.

June 29, 2012 at 12:28 a.m.
LaughingBoy said...

That high percentage among blacks goes right along with their other high rates indicating irresponsible behavior. It all goes back to being kept in what liberals believe is their place.

June 29, 2012 at 12:33 a.m.

LOL, that's the right-wing for you, blame liberals for everything bad that happens to Blacks.

You ever going to realize that nobody buys the swill you're selling?

June 29, 2012 at 12:36 a.m.
LaughingBoy said...

So why do you think the percentage is so high? Bad luck?

June 29, 2012 at 12:42 a.m.
aae1049 said...

Happywithnewbulbs. My reading comprehension is fine. It is you that does not understand. HIV and AIDS are a serious autoimmune disease. The comment I referenced, read again, are the words of a Stupid Person.

June 29, 2012 at 12:52 a.m.

aae1049, Which I don't see as the intent of the story, as it is actually going in the opposite direction, and not at all attempting to say that AIDS and HIV are not serious, but rather that the fear has lead to people being silent about it and trying to hide the problem.

Sorry, but I do not feel you are reading it correctly. I can understand if you feel that the writing should be more clear, but that does not mean your interpretation is accurate.

JAHCHILD, the problem isn't homosexual behavior, but unprotected sex. That is not limited to homosexuals, but occurs among far too many people. You can see this even more dramatically in Non-US populations. You are just engaging in an attempt to stigmatize others, and that is not a good idea.

June 29, 2012 at 1:10 a.m.

Trying to claim that you are just reporting facts is a pretty transparent attempt to avoid responsibility for your words.

Your intention is clear, based in your past words, and you are attempting to stigmatize homosexuals as usual for you. Your false claims to be concerned are not genuine and can't fooling anybody.

June 29, 2012 at 1:33 a.m.

And I hope you haven't cause harm with your heavy-handed and oppressive behavior that is too often the refuge of the supposedly noble-minded.

June 29, 2012 at 1:54 a.m.
LaughingBoy said...

Bulbs, what's your opinion/reasoning on why the percentage is so high?

June 29, 2012 at 2:01 a.m.
davidcook said...

Perhaps I was not as clear as I hoped to be: AIDS, like you wrote aae149, is very serious. Yet the medicines and treatments available today no longer make HIV a death sentence. And if the rates of transmission are high, then testing is obviously an answer. Yet most folks don't get tested out of fear....stigma...and so forth. JAHCHILD, you bring up homosexual behavior. My guess is that this weekend in our city, most of the promiscuity will fall between heterosexuals. If AIDS was primarily a "straight'' disease, do you think you'd say such things? Hope all of you stay cool this weekend....

June 29, 2012 at 9:59 a.m.

LaughingBoy, the explanation in this article certainly has more merit than yours.

June 29, 2012 at 11:59 a.m.
shane said...

aae1049 - you missed the "spirit" in which this article was penned.

JAHCHILD - you can go on believing that you're helping . . . but seriously?

boy - see the above

bulbs - thanks for reassuring that some folks get it!

and before anyone rushes to point fingers at me . . . pick up your phone, get online or get in your car and get out and volunteer to do something about it. there are plenty of organization, in the valley, that need your help. specifically, JAHCHILD, a hug or smile at an HIV testing site will go much further than thumping your bible. put your money where your mouth is . . . then maybe you can honestly say "I hope I have helped somebody. I might have, you know."

p.s. if you need to know who needs your volunteer help, let me know, i'll point you in the right direction.

p.s.s. as someone with HIV, i'd like to thank david for a relevant and honest article.

June 29, 2012 at 12:28 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

Bulbs I was hoping for your response since you called my answer swill. Avoiding irresponsible behavior in the first place and there is little reason for testing. Blacks have been told by liberals for decades now they can't succeed without help. That has to be crushing for a culture and some give in to the thought eventually affecting their self-worth. My view, blacks can go as far as they want. Look up some of Walter Williams articles on black crime, employment, marriage, out of wedlock birth rates before they were regarded as a voting block and actually were thought of as people by most.

June 29, 2012 at 3:07 p.m.
ebenji87 said...

JAHCHILD, don't fool yourself. You aren't helping anyone or anything besides your own ego.

David Cook, thanks for your always interesting articles!

June 29, 2012 at 4:04 p.m.

As I said, the answer in this article has more merit than yours.

Then again, so does the manufactured viral weapon conspiracy, so I guess that's not saying much.

June 29, 2012 at 4:46 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

I can't find the answer in the opinion piece. So you have no opinion, you just thought my response was swill for no reason?

June 29, 2012 at 5:11 p.m.

Nope, your response is swill because of its very nature. It's nothing new, same old packaging. Nobody buys it.

But why don't you ask the writer to elucidate if you missed the explanation?

June 29, 2012 at 5:19 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

It's a proven fact those risk factors were lower among blacks before welfare became such a part of many of their lives. You actually think there is no connection?

June 29, 2012 at 5:27 p.m.

Sorry but it's not a proven anything except a load of BS promulgated by right-wing demogogues.

You'd think they'd realize it wasn't working sooner or later.

June 29, 2012 at 7:38 p.m.
conservative said...

The guy is a Liberal and the caption reveals his misguided belief so I didn't need to read further.

He could have reminded his like minded readers of another Liberal, Jimmy Carter, with this caption - "Americans Have an Inordinate Fear of AIDS"

June 30, 2012 at 8:15 a.m.
LaughingBoy said...

Bulbs, the figures provided by Walter Williams, among others, are there. Are you going to give your opinion on the 60 percent rate or will you keep ducking like a coward.

June 30, 2012 at 1 p.m.
Fendrel said...


Can you be more specific with your CDC reference please. I was only able to find data which supported a rate of roughly 1 every 10.9 minutes, which over the course of a year is significantly less people.

June 30, 2012 at 3:23 p.m.

LaughingBoy, sorry, but nobody buys Walter Williams either. John Williams is another story. He makes decent music. Walter Williams? He just manufactures swill which you try to sell.

But nobody buys it.

JAHCHILD, you can find tragic stories everywhere in any human relationship. You suicide numbers are flawed, as usual, and you can easily Google up deaths in heterosexual relationships.

If you want to do anything, encourage testing and safe sex. Don't continue with your uncharitable disdain for people. That does not achieve any good end.

Especially when you look at global patterns and realize the true problem.

June 30, 2012 at 10:15 p.m.
aae1049 said...

happywithnewbulbs Seems your perspective is everyone is wrong but you. :-) Marginalizing the seriousness of HIV is the tone of this article.
It is such a false notion of fools to view any transmittable autoimmune disease as very medically treatable, and people should not fear the disease. That is the language of fools.

June 30, 2012 at 10:55 p.m.

Aae1049, not at all, I just don't tend to reply to those I agree with. I believe you are continuing to be mistaking about the purpose of this article, so I reply to you.

As davidcook indicated, the intention was to point out the destructive fear involved that leads to not testing, rather than claim there was no danger.

JAHCHILD, and to exploit tragedies for your own agenda is what? Not at all a noble thing, but a selfish and reprehensible act. You are the one who is doing a disservice to homosexual individuals with your facile pretense at concern for them. You are also failing the many millions of heterosexuals with AIDS and HIV with your incessant focus on attacking homosexuals.

You are also showing how truly insensitive to your fellow humans you are with your continued misrepresentations...not to mention how arrogantly you just proclaimed yourself to be purer, and how you falsely claim that it is their fault.

All you are doing is showing how you do a disservice to Jesus and God.

July 1, 2012 at midnight
LaughingBoy said...

Bulbs are you going to give your thoughts on the 60 percent rate or just keep repeating, "read it for yourself"?

July 2, 2012 at 3:52 p.m.

JAHCHILD, I do not agree to disagree. I fundamentally reject your bigotry and intolerance which you cloak in a false mask of concern.

LaughingBoy, I gave my thoughts, your opinion is swill, and the one in this article has more merit to it.

But you don't care for that, because you know you're selling BS.

July 3, 2012 at 2:07 p.m.
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