DES MOINES, Iowa–It used to be a death sentence surrounded with stereotypes.
“Just a disease that affects gay men. The gay men’s cancer from the eighties,” says Greg Gross, the HIV Program Director for Project of Primary Health Care in Des Moines.
On Tuesday, famous actor and heterosexual Charlie Sheen, revealed he’s been living with HIV for four years.
Gross says it’s cases like Sheen’s that can go a long way toward beating down pre-existing stereotypes. “He’s a very high profile person and it has potential to change perception of what HIV is like.”
Iowa has a lot of work ahead. Gross says Hispanics in Iowa are 2.6 times more likely to be diagnosed than white non-Hispanics and blacks, which account for just three percent of Iowa’s population, are five times more likely to be diagnosed than white non-Hispanics. “One of the biggest issues we are dealing with in Iowa is that half of our new diagnosis of HIV infections year after year are people who already have an AIDS diagnosis, which means they’ve been living with HIV, a long time.”
Gross also says, twenty-two percent of people in Iowa that are living with HIV don’t even know it. That’s four percent higher than the national average, proving Iowa still has a stigma behind getting tested. “It’s this fear of having HIV that keeps people from getting tested,” said Gross.
While Sheen says he won’t necessarily be a new poster child for HIV awareness, his interview may be all that was needed to help countless people going forward. “By him talking openly about it, hopefully it changes people’s minds about who contracts HIV and what it’s like to live with it.”
The number of new HIV diagnosis went down nineteen percent in 2014 but Gross says that percentage looks to be going back up in 2015. The CDC encourages anyone age 16 and older with a sexual history to get tested at least once for the HIV virus.