Kamaria Laffrey will be on hand next week when the Faces of HIV mobile art exhibit rolls into town to tell people that just because someone tests positive for HIV it is not the end of the world.
“We tell people when we’re testing and doing outreach that if they test positive it’s not the end of the world,” said Laffrey. “Life is normal, we just have to make adjustments.”
Laffrey, a Polk County resident, knows. She has been HIV positive since 2003. Her daughter, born in 2004, is not HIV positive. She calls her daughter — as did the nurses — a miracle baby. Laffrey couldn’t afford prenatal care, failed at breast feeding her and she was born when many infants would catch the disease from their mother.
“She had the trifecta of exposure and she came out negative,” she said. She said she nor anyone else can explain why, but this can show people some of the reality of AIDS.
On April 8 and 9, a mobile art exhibit will be at two different campuses of Polk State College. The exhibit depicts the lives of Florida residents living with HIV and AIDS through portraits, videos, interviews and journals. Started in 2011, this is the first time the 34-foot truck will be in Polk County. It is free and it is open to anyone.
It started when the Florida Department of Health invited HIV positive people to unveil their daily lives by keeping a journal for one month. Some went further and did video interviews. Now there are 15 Florida residents who have a part in this mobile art van, including two from Polk County, Laffrey and Tracy Miller.
“There is still a lot of misconception of who gets it,” said Tara Menendez of the Faces of HIV. “There’s still this image of people who are gay or prostitutes and that’s not really what’s going on.”
She said part of what the Faces of HIV is trying to do is to reduce the stigma and fear.
“There are a lot of people who are still scared,” she said.
Laffrey sees this first-hand, both when she speaks when she is with the Faces of HIV and in other situations.
“They don’t realize that HIV causes AIDS,” Laffrey said. “Some have HIV for a really long time and don’t know it.”
She said symptoms don’t always show up. However, she said, much has changed for those who test positive.
“It’s not like it was years ago and you can see where it’s going,” she said. “So much changes daily with breakthroughs with medication. I believe we’re close to making things very manageable.”
But, she said, there is much people have to learn.
On her first time being with the Faces of HIV van, she encountered a lot of anger and resentment from the public. That was in September 2012 when the truck was at The Pier in St. Petersburg. But, she said, they were still able to open the door to people and were able to discuss it.
“There was a great turnout,” she said. “One gentleman thought (the Faces of HIV) was a memorial and thought all the people were dead. I was standing with Tracy Miller and we just let him talk.”
They discussed the complications of AIDS and she said he was looking at the pictures on the bus and noticed he saw Laffrey and Miller.
“That’s us,” she said she told him. “This is not about death. People do die, but most of these people have jobs and live their lives. He was blown away. He was talking about friends he lost.”
She said much of the complications people run into today is because they don’t have access to the medications that are available.
And the medications are much less. No longer is there the cocktails people have to take, but they have to stay on the medication to fight the disease. There still is no cure for it.
In Polk County, according to the latest numbers available there are 1,829 people who are living with HIV and AIDS. Dr. Ulyee Chloe, Polk County health director, said that in the 1980s and 1990s being diagnosed as positive for HIV was a death sentence. That is not true anymore.
“Medications have gotten effective in the treatment of this chronic disease,” he said. “Life expectancy has improved.”
He said patients who get on the medication early enough they can prevent it growing to AIDS or even improve their system.
He said nationally about 15 percent of people will HIV do not realize they have it. This causes them to spread the disease and this truck will help people understand the disease and how important it is they get tested. That, he said, can save lives using a pregnant woman, as an example.
“Before medication, 25 percent (of infants) contracted the disease,” he said. “If the mother takes medication, the infection has gotten down to 1 percent.”
Now married to another person who is HIV positive, Laffrey feels like it’s important to spread the message about the disease. It’s not as scary as it used to be as it is not an automatic death sentence, she said and added it is something people have to learn to live with.
“There’s a reason to be vocal,” she said. “I’ve experienced both sides. People want to hear about this. A young lady (last night) said I saved her life. She didn’t go into the details of how, but I don’t hold anything back because we have to fight through things.”