I have been living with HIV for 10 years, and what I have learned is this: having this virus is not easy. Living with a lifelong condition presents incredible challenges that not everyone sees. No one hears the difficult conversations you have to have with your partner, your family, or your doctor throughout the multiple appointments you must maintain for the rest of your life. I believe these moments that people don’t see make many misinterpret the reality of living with HIV.
When I look around me, I think the reason there has been such an increase of HIV infections among young gay men is that HIV is no longer viewed as a death sentence. While I am overjoyed at how far we have come since the early 1980s when the disease emerged, I fear the younger generation may no longer view HIV as something serious.
The latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a major increase in the number of new infections among gay and bisexual men who are between the ages of 13 and 24 — a 132.5 percent increase between 2001 and 2011.
It is important to remember that one irresponsible or uninformed move can result in a lifelong condition. Not only do those with HIV have to live with the responsibility for their own health, as does everyone else, they must ensure they are asking the right questions, being safe, and staying responsible with their partner or partners. New treatment options make it possible to live an active life with the disease. But these treatment options can provide the younger generation with a false sense of security, as perhaps they are no longer fearful of what may happen if they act irresponsibly.
A lot of this confusion can be caused by the media. The conversations in the news surrounding HIV must be revamped to focus on the extensive steps needed to protect oneself as well as the difficulties of living with HIV. In addition, the younger generation should speak with those who have been living with HIV into their older years to get a firsthand account of how the disease affects people over the course of a lifetime.
Moreover, it is important to continue educating people living with HIV, as well. This is why I partnered with Merck on behalf of I Design, a national HIV education campaign that encourages those living with HIV to have open and honest conversations with their doctors about the efficacy of their treatment plans. These conversations can help doctors and patients tailor treatment plans to fit individual needs and further empower those living with the virus.
I’ve collaborated with two amazing people in this campaign: renowned photographer Duane Cramer and Maria Davis, an HIV activist and music insider. Both have lived into their 50s with HIV. Maria and Duane are positive role models for the younger generation, as they know how difficult it can be to live with HIV over time. They can speak to the responsibility that comes with having the disease and how it affects one's social life, relationships, mental health, and beyond. HIV can take a toll on the people in one's life, including one's partner, if it is not approached correctly.
While living with HIV requires one to have these difficult conversations — the ones seldom mentioned in the media — I am fortunate to be able to live a healthy life, and I have learned to engage in such challenging conversations. And the most important conversation I can have is with myself. I have routine check-ins with myself and, of course, my doctor, the very first person with whom I ever had this important conversation.
If you or someone you know is living with HIV, I encourage you to get the help and support you need. You can visit the I Design website, ProjectIDesign.com, to learn more about the campaign and to download easy-to-use tools to help manage your HIV such as the My Health Matters mobile app and My Positive Agenda desktop app.
I hope to leave you with this: Please remember when I say that living with HIV is not easy.
I face challenges each and every day. My only hope is that telling you my story will help you or those living around you to be careful about your health. But I also hope that by telling you my story and experience, it only encourages you to live your best, healthy life.
MONDO GUERRA has been HIV-positive for over 10 years, and his courageous revelation on Project Runway has launched him into HIV awareness advocacy. He is currently collaborating with Merck on I Design, a national HIV education campaign aimed at helping to empower people with the disease to play an active role in designing their treatment plan with their doctors.