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As Resources Improve, Virginia HIV Patients Continue to Fight Stigma and Discrimination

Woman looking at picture
Darlene Castro looking at an old picture of herself (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM News)

*VPM intern Alan Rodriguez Espinoza reported this story

In 2007, Darlene Castro graduated from Richmond’s drug treatment court, a substance abuse program for non-violent offenders. She had been involved in sex work and drug dealing and was sent to drug court for 18 months. 

Two weeks after she concluded the program, Castro paid a mandatory visit to the Health Department. There, she'd be diagnosed with HIV.

When she found out, Castro says she screamed and threw chairs at the wall. She was afraid that she would be sick all the time and her skin would turn dark. She told her mother she thought she was going to die.

“I just didn't want to be around people. I wanted to isolate and withdraw because I didn't want anybody to know that I was HIV positive,” Castro said.

Castro is only one of about 25,000 people who live with HIV in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Health. More than 3,000 of them live in Richmond. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Richmond had the 21st highest rate of new HIV infections in the country in 2018. 

Elaine Martin is the Director of HIV and Hepatitis Prevention at VDH. She says HIV tends to mirror other issues in society like homophobia, discrimination and racism. 

“All can have a very negative impact on whether somebody is willing to go for care, whether somebody is willing to get a test, whether someone is willing to disclose to their friends or family that they have HIV and get the social support that they need,” Martin said.

Of the 817 new HIV diagnoses in Virginia in 2019, over 500 were black patients. Nationally, black women are 18 times more likely than white women to be diagnosed with the virus. 

In Virginia, half of new HIV infections are transmitted through male-to-male sexual contact. While the general public has a one in 99 chance of contracting HIV, gay black men have a one in two chance. 

“For black gay men, they've got the stigma of being gay, they've got racism on top of that,” Martin said. “When you pile all that stuff on people, it creates stress in their lives. It creates trauma.” 

VDH says HIV medicine has improved in the last few decades, lowering risks of transmission and raising life expectancy. Medicaid expansion in Virginia means qualifying patients can get their medication free of charge. 

Jihad Abdulmumit is a community case manager at Health Brigade, a free clinic in Richmond’s Fan neighborhood that has offered HIV treatment since the early days of the virus in the 1980s. 

He says HIV looks very different today than it did back then, but there is one thing that hasn’t changed.

“There’s a lot of individuals that are beating the pavement to get people services so I’ve definitely got to applaud them, but the discrimination factor is still real,” Abdulmumit said. “The question is, can [patients] plow through the discrimination and stigma of showing up at an infectious disease clinic?”

Despite that stigma, Castro took a leap of faith and told her family. 

“I have three daughters. I told them I was HIV positive and all three of them accepted that. They said, ‘Mama, just keep living.’ They said, ‘Just keep living,’” Castro said. 

For Castro, that made all the difference. She lives a happy life and continues to battle the stigma. She’s one of many people featured in an exhibition at the Valentine Museum about HIV in Richmond.

“There are people -- especially the black women -- they're not coming out. They’re in the closet. They want to isolate and withdraw from the world,” Castro said. “I’m telling my story because I want them to feel that it’s okay to talk about having HIV.”

According to the Virginia Department of Health, people who are HIV positive can be sexually active with little to no risk of transmission as long as they take their prescribed medication, and can go on to live full healthy lives.

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