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HIV cases in Austin on the rise

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In the past two decades, there have been major advancements in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

Still, the number of people living with HIV in Austin is on the rise at alarming rates, according to the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department. Since 2006, the number of people living with HIV has increased by more than 40%.

At 46-years old, Austin resident James Chestnut says he's lucky to be alive.

"I was diagnosed in February 2005," he said.

It's been almost a decade since Chestnut learned he was HIV positive. He says the first few years were fairly easy, but in 2009, he was laid off and lost his health insurance. Chestnut could no longer afford the $3500 a month it took to pay for his medications without insurance.

"That was kind of when all hell broke loose," said Chestnut, "There were serious ramifications of me going off the meds."

Last year, Chestnut developed colon cancer and lost nearly 85 pounds. He was admitted into hospice care through Project Transitions, a local organization created to help those living with HIV.

"It was horrible. I thought I was going to die," he said, "My T-cells I think at their lowest got down to about 86."

Too sick for chemo and radiation, Chestnut's last hope to live would be a risky operation on his colon that came with no promises.

"If I hadn't gotten treatment when I did, I was weeks away from dying," said Chestnut.

Chestnut is one of more than 5,000 people living with HIV in the Austin area. Since 2006, that number has increased by more than 40%. The number is up because people are living longer with HIV, but mostly because of new cases among young to middle-aged men.

"There's a still a significant burden in that younger group," said Dr. Phil Huang, Medical Director for the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department.

Huang says he's concerned about the prevalence of HIV in Travis County, especially in adolescents.

He worries that because HIV is more treatable now, some may have the impression that it's easy to live with.

"These medications cause a lot of side effects. This is not something people want to be taking regularly," said Huang.

Chestnut takes a cocktail of three drugs each day to control HIV. And there are nearly 2 dozen more he needs because of side effects from the virus.

"It probably cost between $4,000 and $5,000 a month for all of that," said Chestnut.

Chestnut now has health insurance through the Affordable Care Act and is living cancer free. Feeling fortunate to have a second chance, he now volunteers with the organization that he credits for saving his life.

"I don't see how you can go through that experience and not try and want to give back if you're well enough to do so," he said.

Chestnut says he now wants younger generations to see his story and know that living with HIV is possible, but it's not always easy.

"They need to educate themselves and to seek out the information," said Chestnut.

For more information or to make a donation to Project Transitions, visit their website at projecttransitions.org.

 

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