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Dr. Jose Belizario: Saving Your Life via Early AIDS Testing

Dr. Jose Belizario

By Deardra Shuler

 Many of you may be aware that this is AIDS Awareness Month and may even plan to join the annual AIDS Walk scheduled for May 19th, with a rain date of June 2nd.   An open air screening of film shorts to help promote AIDS awareness will also be available.  The evening entertainment will be from 7:00 – 10:00 p.m. in the plaza area of Heritage Health Center, located at 1727 Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. 

 Filmmaker Tamiko Joye Ball, of Red Bone Moving Images, LLC, will feature her film “Confessions of A Black Woman” which highlights Ms. Ball’s quest to examine the reality of the AIDS infection as it impacts African American women.  Also, FRONTLINE will present “The Age of AIDS” tracing the course of AIDS since its discovery a quarter of a century ago.  The film investigates the science, politics, and human cost of AIDS and asks what lessons have been learned about AIDS and what can be done to stop its surge.

In pursuit of this story, this journalist decided to take an AIDS test.  Like many of you, it never occurred to me to test for the HIV/AIDS virus.  Naturally, I felt that I didn’t have AIDS because I am careful, not promiscuous, and use protection; at least those were the reasons I used for not getting tested.  But the reality is -- there is no full proof preventive method to avoid contracting AIDS, outside of abstinence.  Did you know that if you purchase a latex condom that has been in a hot or too cold environment, the condom may have lost its effectiveness?  Also, a condom can tear, thus is not necessarily a reliable preventative.  Did you know that you should wait a few hours before kissing a person with the AIDS virus who has just brushed their teeth to avoid the possibility of being infected by their bodily fluids and/or bleeding gums? Armed with that information, I took the test on the 4th Floor, of the Heritage Health Center, located on Amsterdam Avenue between 145th and 146th Street in Manhattan. 

Tiajuana Garrett administered the saliva test making it a pleasant and informative experience.  My result was negative but anyone can find out the results of their saliva AIDS test in 20 minutes.  Even if one tests positive, HIV/AIDS is not necessarily a death sentence if you test early and take the medication. Ms. Garrett informed me that there are no standard symptoms initially of HIV infection or of AIDS.  People living with HIV may feel and look completely well but their immune systems may nevertheless be damaged. Most people who become infected with HIV do not notice any immediate change in their health. However, some may suffer from a flu-like illness within a few weeks of infection, or may develop a rash or swollen glands.  However, anyone can get a rash, have swollen glands or have the flu and not have HIV/AIDS.  That is why it’s important to get tested.   It has also been discovered that some who contract the HIV virus and test early, never develop full blown AIDS.  Naturally, this depends on early testing, educating oneself about AIDS prevention, and maintaining a proper health regimen to build up the immune system” explained Ms. Garrett.  

Dr. Jose Belizario, who is Deputy Director of the Heritage Health Center, and is responsible for the overall day-to-day operations of the facility, informed me about the Center.  “The Heritage Health Care Center has been in the Harlem Community for over 25 years providing health care in adult medicine, women’s health, pediatrics, HIV education and counseling, etc.  We go out into the community and provide AIDS awareness.  If someone tests negative we teach them what they need to do to remain negative and if they test HIV positive we teach the person what to do to stay healthy and provide information to them on how not to spread the virus to other individuals.” Dr. Belizario explained. 

 African Americans represent 12% of the U.S. population yet disproportionately account for more than 38% of the 816,149 cases reported since the epidemic began and 49% of the 43,158 cases reported in 2001 alone.  African American women are now the highest population infected with HIV/AIDS.  Although, African American teenagers, ages 13-19, account for 15% of the nation’s population, they represent 61% of AIDS cases reported in 2001.  As many know, one can contract the virus via unprotected sex, use of dirty needles, intravenously via blood transfusion (although that is becoming less likely), and blood/fluid exchange with an infected person. The notion some of you may have of invulnerability is a false notion.

 AIDS is not a virus only contracted by the homosexual population.  It is prevalent in the heterosexual population as well.  Some unsuspecting women have contracted it from their down low bi-sexual husbands.  LaJoyce Brookshire known for novelizing the movie “Soul Food,” her book Web of Deception and her most recent book Faith Under Fire: Betrayed by a Thing Called Love” documents her own true account in her new book of having married a man whom she now suspects was on the down-low, and knew he had AIDS when he married her but never informed her of that fact.  Her story is so compelling I will document it in more detail within another article.

 “New treatments are becoming available, but we need to pay attention more so, to how communities are becoming infected.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” stated the doctor.  “People need to get tested.  Preventive messages most be tailored specifically to the African American population to educate them on the behaviorist models available and preventive methods out there.  Judgment is a valid tool in HIV/AIDS prevention.  You cannot necessarily rely on an infected partner to be honest about having AIDS.  We need to empower people and help them develop behavior to reduce the risk” counseled Dr. Belizario.  

 

I encourage people to call Heritage Health Center at 212-862-0966 to inquire about AIDS testing and the preventive programs available. 


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