Ending the Silence: Asian Pacific Americans Urged to Increase HIV/AIDS Testing

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 It is three in the morning and Philip, 27, wakes up from a nightmare that he soon forgets. He drinks a cup of milk and falls back to sleep.

The vivid dreams and dizziness are recurring experiences for Philip, side effects he attributes to taking Atripla, a pill he consumes daily because he has AIDS.

“Sometimes I dream about dying. It’s scary sometimes,” Philip said who agreed to speak on condition of partial anonymity. “Then I wake up in the middle of the night all of a sudden.”

The Filipino American, who identifies as gay and lives in Southern California, was diagnosed with AIDS in May of 2010. Philip says he likely contracted HIV two or three years ago.

Last year in February Philip says he was hospitalized for three days after having seizures brought on by a high temperature. An HIV/AIDS test, his first one, revealed that his T-cell count, white blood cells that are important to the immune response, was at 157. A healthy T-cell count ranges from 800 to 1,200.

“It kind of hit me really hard because I was thinking, ‘It couldn’t happen to me. It couldn’t happen to me,” Philip said who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences. “I should know better, right? I went to college. I’m educated. But I just thought it would never be me.”

Asian Pacific Americans represent 2.8 percent of the total reported HIV/AIDS cases in California as of June 30, 2011, according to the California Office of AIDS. But despite their relatively low risk level when compared to other ethnic groups, one in three Asian Pacific Americans living with HIV is unaware of their status.

Out of 10,763 Asians Americans who are 18 years and older, 6,828 were never tested, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Out of 558 Pacific Islanders, 350 had never been tested.

“There is still this belief that if you don’t feel sick and if you don’t look sick probably there’s nothing wrong with you,” said Peter Cruz, senior program manager of prevention services at APAIT Health Center. “And so APIs won’t access medical care unless the physical symptoms start manifesting.”

That was the case for Randy, who was born in South Korea but is ethnically Chinese. He was diagnosed in 2000 with HIV. The 49-year-old put off getting treatment until he was hospitalized in 2007.

“My sister told me I was in a coma and she showed me the picture and I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’” said Randy, who asked to only use his American first name. “At that time I realized that this is my second chance to live in this world.”

When properly treated, the advancement of HIV, which progresses in stages depending on the viral load and symptoms, can be prevented or delayed. In the last stage AIDS occurs.

After one week in a coma and three weeks in the hospital Randy returned home where he eventually disclosed his AIDS status to his wife, mom and sister.

“I think in Oriental community they are not really open to talk about HIV, sex, STDs or even gay or lesbian things,” Randy said. “So when I told her [my mom] she thought that this disease is contagious and she went to my sister’s place to live for about two years.” Read more here.