Horry County, world to pause, remember those living with HIV and AIDS

Christian Pearson is a young man with a passion for history and politics, and it’s easy to imagine seeing his name on a ballot one day.

Dressed in jeans, a button-up blue shirt, black tie and gray sweater, the 24-year-old Myrtle Beach resident speaks with confidence, whether he’s talking about his faith, his drum playing or his love of books that address such political issues as the Suez Canal crisis and the Iranian hostage crisis.

Pearson, who is black, hoped to be the first African-American president when he was a teenager.

“I think Barack Obama beat me there,” he said.

A healthy-looking man with high hopes for where God is going to lead him, Pearson represents the face of HIV and AIDS in 2012. A disease once considered a death sentence is now manageable through powerful drugs which allow the patient to live longer, normal lives.

Pearson was born with HIV though he wasn’t officially diagnosed until the age of 16. Saturday is World AIDS Day, a day designated to pay tribute to Pearson and the millions around the globe living with the disease.

The next battle in the fight against AIDS, Pearson said, is eradicating the stigma associated with it – that the disease only affects members of the black community, drug users, homosexuals or those who are promiscuous.

He considers himself living proof that HIV and AIDS can target anyone.

Pearson, who was adopted by his foster family before his second birthday, contracted the disease from his birth mother, who was HIV positive.

Dr. Nyabilondi Ebama, with Low Country Infectious Diseases, said a baby born with HIV is very rare. With each pregnancy, doctors test for the disease early, she added. If it is detected, it can be controlled through medication.

Then there are the cases where a mother might not get tested, or is aware she has the virus, but doesn’t seek proper care for her unborn child, Ebama said.

Still, the odds of transmission from an HIV positive mother to her child is 0.03 percent, she said. The odds, as it turned out, weren’t in Pearson’s favor.

His childhood was fraught with illness, including a case of the shingles at 15.

The HIV diagnosis wasn’t the only piece of bad news Pearson received in 2005; a few months prior, doctors told him and his family he suffered from non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

His immune system was weakened because of the presence of the dormant human immunodeficiency virus, thereby making him more susceptible to lymphoma and the other illnesses he suffered as a child.

It was a double-whammy, but Pearson took it in stride, which he credited to his strong Christian faith.

“I took it better than I would have taken it a few months earlier,” he said.

Pearson maintains an active life through medications, which allow him to play drums in his church band, work at jobs such as Ripley’s Haunted House and enjoy time with family and friends.

Ebama said those whose HIV progressed into full-blown AIDS 20 years ago generally didn’t live for another decade. Today, their lifespan can go another 30 or 40 years because of stronger medicine.

Those medicines, however, aren’t cheap. Ebama said a month’s supply can run $1,000 or higher.

Initiatives like the AIDS Drug Assistance Program offer financial support to help HIV and AIDS sufferers get those much-needed medications.

“The face of AIDS has changed, but the face of HIV has not,” Ebama said.

In Horry County, approximately 753 cases of HIV and AIDS are on record as Dec. 31, 2011, according to statistics from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

While AIDS’ stigma as debilitating and deadly has changed over the years, Ebama said, HIV’s stigma remains. That stigma, she explained, is that some people who are sexually active or use recreational drugs still refuse to get tested.

Ebama added some don’t want to know because they still associate it with a death sentence.

Another perception tied with HIV that Pearson wants to stamp out is the disease only targets select groups.

Pearson points out he’s not a drug user and said, “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I’m still HIV positive.”

Outside of his family, Pearson told a few close friends about his diagnosis at first. It took a year before other classmates found out for sure, despite rumors that floated around school..

He remembers some peers being sympathetic to his face, but later finding they spread gossip behind his back.

Pearson also acknowledges certain people might hear his story, and assume he’s lying about how he contracted the disease.

He understands he can’t change everyone’s thinking right away, but the hope is more people coping with HIV and AIDS will let it be known the disease doesn’t have its sights set on certain people, and everyone should be vigilant in stopping its spread.

For Pearson, he’s going to remain vigilant in living his life, reading his books and pondering a possible future in politics.

“I’m young and I have a lot of time ahead of me,” he said.