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After living with HIV for 21 years, 46-year-old Tommy Chesbro shows few outward signs that he has the virus, except for a combination of 12 pills that he takes every morning.
Chesbro was one of more than 300 people on Wednesday who attended the Oklahoma HIV/STD Conference, where AIDS, HIV, and sexually transmitted diseases were the topic. The event is a prelude to Friday's World AIDS Day.
Chesbro was infected in 1985, and although he was pursuing a master's degree in performing arts, he dropped out of school.
"When I first was infected there were no medications available,'' Chesbro said. ''There was a lot of fear that if you got it, you were going to die. At that time, based on what we knew about the disease, I dropped out of school and was basically preparing to die.''
But health officials say with advances in research and new drugs, people don't have to live with that fear when they learn they are HIV-positive.
Despite those advances, parents and schools need to focus their safe-sex education on not just high school students but middle school students, said Michael Harmon, chief of HIV/STD Service for the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Despite the concerns some parents have about their middle school child being taught about sexually transmitted diseases and safe-sex practices, Harmon said it's necessary because children are becoming sexually active at younger ages.
''Most parents seem to be reluctant to talk about those issues about sexual activity, and they leave it up to the schools,'' Harmon said. ''We can't rely on abstinence as a sole means of avoiding these infectious diseases.''
Between 175 to 220 new cases of HIV are reported annually in Oklahoma, Harmon said. As of September 30, 4,297 Oklahomans were living with HIV or AIDS, he said.
In Oklahoma, blacks are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS. Although they make up only about 8% of Oklahoma's population, their rate of infection is about 24%, Harmon said.
Gay men have the highest rate of HIV and AIDS, but Harmon said the number of infected heterosexual females is rising.
''Get an HIV test, learn your status,'' Harmon said.
Chesbro said that overall he leads a normal life and is grateful for the medical advances that have been made. Besides taking 12 pills a day for the virus, he takes pills for high cholesterol and for side effects of the HIV medication. He works out daily at a gym and watches his diet.
He currently works as the vice president of education and advocacy at Planned Parenthood of Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma.
''After several years of surviving with the disease, I realized that I was possibly going to live for a while and wanted to do something positive with my life,'' Chesbro said. ''I started working to educate people about the disease to help prevent infection, and help people who are infected take better care of themselves.'' (Reuters)