Flagstaff, AZ – More and more people who are HIV positive have access to effective treatment and prevention. However, the number of people living with AIDS continues to grow as does the number of deaths due to AIDS. It remains the leading cause of death among men and women ages 15 to 59. While most people think of Sub Sahara Africa when they think of AIDS, its reach is local as well as global.
Flagstaff resident Kibby Thomas was diagnosed as HIV positive just after her 22nd birthday. She had contracted the disease from her husband.
THOMAS: I was in a monogamous relationship had children I didn't know my partner my husband back then as well as I should have.
That was six years ago. Today she oversees HIV care for all six of the northern Arizona counties. More than 500 people are HIV positive in northern Arizona. She says many people may not think they're at risk because they don't fall under certain stereotypes.
THOMAS: We are all at risk for contracting HIV regardless of who we are where we live our backgrounds. It's not the virus that we need to be afraid of. It's the ignorance that fuels infection and ignorance that fuels the epidemic today.
Today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials don't specify at-risk groups. Andrew Saal is a physician at North Country Community Health Center.
SAAL: When the current generation of providers were trained we were taught to look for HIV only in HIV groups. Now data has come out that suggests we should be screening everybody. The CDC now recommends we look for HIV the same way we look for cholesterol or blood pressure because if you find cholesterol or blood pressure early on you can change the outcome of the disease.
Saal says HIV is no longer a death sentence. If it's caught early enough, it can be effectively treated as a chronic illness like diabetes or cancer. But Kibby Thomas says those illnesses don't have a stigma attached.
THOMAS: A person with cancer doesn't have to deal with explaining to everybody how they got cancer. Whereas people with HIV often feel like they have to explain I wasn't smoking crack in the alley. I wasn't selling myself for money.
Regardless, Thomas says it's important to get tested so more people aren't infected.
For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.