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Regan Hofmann on the Hidden Faces of HIV

August 29, 2006

“Is there any way that we can stop this?” Regan Hofmann asked the Creative Director of POZ magazine the night before its April edition went to press.  With the April issue, Hofmann officially came out not only as the new editor-in-chief of POZ, where she has for four years been the author of its “Anonymous” column, but also as HIV positive.  Speaking at a recent journalists’ lunch held at the Women’s Media Center, Hofmann described her ten-year struggle to come to terms with revealing her HIV positive status, and her plans for POZ, the award-winning magazine and website for the HIV positive community. In 1996, noticing an odd swelling in her groin after she took a swim with dolphins, Hofmann went to her doctor for tests, just to be sure. Lounging in a massage chair as she waited for her results, she was shocked when five people in lab coats entered the room.  One, remembers Hofmann, dropped a needle which stuck in the floor and “swung back and forth like a pendulum.”  At the time, she notes, they had diagnosed very few women with HIV and, despite their sympathy, had little to offer.  Given a sedative, but no further information or counseling, Hofmann was told that she had a year to live. Both sex and children were out of the question. Reeling from her diagnosis - and its stark delivery - Hofmann joined a gay men’s support group.  “They probably saved my life in the beginning,” she says. “And the second person who saved my life was my mother”. But her prospects were quickly revolutionized by the emergence of protease inhibitors and other drugs which have transformed the life expectancy and quality of life for those with HIV.  As Hofmann points out, today, with the treatment protocols available throughout pregnancy and birth, the risk of a baby contracting HIV from its positive mother is reduced to only 2%. A baby now can even safely be fed its positive mother’s treated breast milk. Seeing increasing numbers of women with HIV spurred Hofmann to write for POZ, which she, like many others, first came across in her doctor’s office.  The demographics of HIV and AIDS have shifted, she says, to the point where the highest rising rates of new infections are now found in women, teens and people over 50 -- many of whom do not realize they are at risk. Almost a third of new infections in the US (compared with half globally) are in women, with low income and African American women particularly at risk.  Some 70% contract HIV from heterosexual sex. And a large number simply do not know that they are HIV positive. For many older people beginning new relationships, “safe sex” often goes unconsidered since there is no worry of becoming pregnant.  However, the risks still exist. Hofmann cites the example of male Florida retirement community residents using their social security checks to purchase Viagra and visit sex workers, unknown to their regular partners. Yet, doctors often assume older women are not having unsafe sex and so do not ask the necessary questions. Even if a woman presents classic symptoms, says Hofmann, her doctors often will not identify them simply because they are not looking for HIV in women over 50. Hofmann’s mother--who admits she has never seen a condom – is beginning an awareness campaign with friends to visit their doctors and ask for HIV tests. Her own doctor knows Hofmann and so will not be surprised at this request, she says, “but there are a lot of doctors in town who will be!” Overcoming stigma is “the key to the lock” in getting people to talk openly about HIV, to get tested and to get help, says Hofmann, noting that both Bill Gates and Bill Clinton spoke on the importance of beating stigma in this month’s International AIDS Conference in Toronto. One essential tool is increasing the visibility of HIV positive people--especially women--in the media, “so people can see they’re not monsters.” POZ is also planning a visit to LA to raise the subject with film and television executives. POZ and its website, POZ.com, are “like a coral reef”, says Hofmann. They create a safe space where people can connect with others who are HIV positive.  “There are so many people living on this website because they can’t live out in the world with HIV.”
Tags: Health

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