WESLACO – A local non-profit organization warns HIV and other sexual-transmitted diseases are causing people to die needlessly.
Approximately 2,560 people in the Rio Grande Valley are living with HIV, according to the Valley AIDS Council.
CHANNEL 5 NEWS learned the reason has more to do with shame than the virus.
Resident Leo Benavides graduated from high school early and said he dreamed of becoming a doctor.
“At the age of 17 is when I found out I was HIV positive,” he said.
Benavides said he was in shock. After his diagnosis, he and his mother took the long walk back to the car.
“That’s where I just broke down in tears and I just couldn’t stop. I had a complete flashback to when I first started having sex and I just thought to myself, ‘Where did I go wrong? Or when did I mess up that led to this?’” he said.
Benavides said he turned to his friends for comfort.
“They told me that I was disgusting and no wonder I was punished with this disease. And the last thing this person told me was, ‘Have a good life, if it lasts that long,’” he said.
Benavides said he became sexually active at the age of 13, when he and his then partner started having unprotected sex. They conceived a child at the age of 14.
“My son is crazy. He’s always all over the place. He knows when I’m down. He’ll randomly come up to me and just be like, ‘Dad, I love you’ or ‘Dad, I missed you,’” he said.
Benavides said he informs Valley teenagers about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases in person and through social media.
“Educate them so that they can stay healthy for the rest of their lives. That way they don’t have to worry about their health every day like I do,” he said. “And after going and talking to the kids in Donna, 15 maybe more students came and got tested after speaking to them, because they weren’t aware that people their age can get infected.”
Benavidez said his infection is currently classified as HIV Positive and undetectable thanks to his medication.
Oscar Lopez, director of education at the Valley AIDS Council, said the medication can greatly benefit an HIV patient.
“When a person is HIV positive, and they take their medication on a daily basis as instructed, they can become undetectable very quickly, which means their viral load is so low, their virus is so controlled that the medicine is working well and their ability to infect someone else is practically zero. That’s how great the medication is,” he said.
Lopez said there is also a new medication called PREP. When taken consistently, he said it’s almost impossible for someone to become HIV positive.
Statistics show it has a 96 percent success rate at preventing the disease.
Lopez said new infections could be a thing of the past with these new types of medications.
However, he explained the stigma surrounding the disease will keep the number of new cases growing, especially among the Latino community.
“Latinos and Latinas are the group more likely to die quicker than any other group, any other ethnic group within 12 months of finding out they're HIV positive because they wait too long to get tested,” he said.
Lopez said the most important way to stop the spread of HIV in the Valley is to have the courage to get tested and know your status.
The process to get tested takes only about 60 seconds. Despite the quick results, Lopez said the numbers continue to rise each year.
“This past year, we had more than 230 cases of people newly diagnosed with HIV. The two groups that we are concerned most about – probably because we’re seeing the largest increase – is those over 50, and young people under 24, between the 13 and 24 age range,” he said.
Lopez sad Valley school districts should teach a full sex education program. He said that would lower the amount of new HIV cases.
“There’s only one school district in the entire Rio Grande Valley that’s doing comprehensive, science-based factual sex education and that’s the Donna ISD,” he said. “But no other school district has gone that far. Many will call us and say, ‘We want sex ED but you cannot talk about condoms, you can only talk about abstinence.’ That’s not realistic for kids.”
Lopez added younger generations don’t stand alone with a lack of knowledge about HIV.
Valley resident we'll call Jennifer told CHANNEL 5 NEWS the time she went for a routine doctor’s visit.
“I just felt flushed, I cried. I was in tears. My first response to her was, ‘Am I going to die?’” she recalled.
With a positive HIV diagnosis, Jennifer discovered her husband of 10 years had been unfaithful to her.
She said he insisted they not use condoms. She’s since divorced her husband, but no one in her family knows about her status.
“To make sure nobody saw me at times, I would carry an umbrella just so I could hide myself walking into the clinic. Nobody knew,” she said.
Jennifer said she’s now living a healthy lifestyle and has undetectable HIV. She recommends women of all ages to get tested.
Benavides offered a few words of advice.
“If it can happen to me, it can happen to you and just about anybody. Go get tested. Don’t be afraid. Take anybody. Take your best friend. Take anybody that you can trust, that you know will be there for you,” he said.
Lopez said he and the Valley AIDS Council will continue to work hard to fight the spread of HIV and AIDS.
He said VAC can provide free testing and medication for those in need.
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. Once a person is infected and goes without medication, the virus starts attacking their immune system by killing the body’s T-cells.
Without enough T-cells, the body cannot fight off diseases. And once the cells drop below a certain level, a person can be diagnosed with AIDS.
Experts said an early diagnosis is key to prevent its spreading.
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