Martha Warriner-Jarrett, a 72-year-old, white, heterosexual woman, is in the demographic group least at-risk for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
But three years ago, after battling a bout of what her doctor thought was Fibromyalgia, she was hospitalized with a low white blood-cell count.
She had been sick for years. Doctors couldn’t figure it out — until she was hooked to a ventilator and tested for HIV. It just happened to be World AIDS Day, she said.
She tested positive.
“It was a huge shock to me. I didn’t know where it came from, was in denial for awhile and it took me six months to recover physically and emotionally and be able to deal with this,” Warriner-Jarrett said.
Her best guess is that she acquired it from her late husband, who died at 77 of what doctors diagnosed as double pneumonia. But after her diagnosis, she began to suspect that his illness was AIDS — Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, the virus that HIV causes.
Friday, three years after her diagnosis, Warriner-Jarrett came to the World AIDS Day event in downtown Bakersfield to urge anyone at risk to educate themselves on the disease, which infected almost 40,000 across the country last year and killed 6,721 in 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most of all, Warriner-Jarrett wants people to get tested.
“It could have saved me a lot of grief and perhaps his life,” Warriner-Jarrett said, referring to her late husband.
Warriner-Jarrett was one of the dozens of people who turned out Friday for a local World AIDS Day resource fair that provided prevention strategies and free same-day HIV testing offered by Clinica Sierra Vista.
HIV attacks the body’s T Cells, crippling the body’s immune system and leaving those with the disease susceptible to other infections and infection-related cancers, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It can be transmitted sexually, through blood contact and by sharing needles. There’s no cure.
In Kern County, 3,009 people have reported having HIV/AIDS since 1981, and roughly 106 new cases have been reported annually on average in the past decade, according to Kern County Public Health Services Department data. Last year, there were 111 new diagnoses, including a newborn — the first neonatal case since 2002.
Because HIV screening is required during check-ups for expectant mothers, the diagnosis points to a lack of prenatal care, Public Health officials said.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, advocates say. Public Health officials say that 11 percent of all those in California, roughly 4.3 million people, are living with HIV, but are unaware and undiagnosed.
HIV wrecks the immune system, “but the problem is, it may take years before it does that,” said Dr. Alexandra Franco, an infectious disease and internal medicine specialist at Clinica Sierra Vista, who sees about 15 to 20 patients daily with HIV/AIDS. “You walk around with the virus in your blood and it’s very active, but you don’t feel anything. It might take, for some patients, up to two years, and for other patients, up to 20 years to develop symptoms.”
Most troubling, however, is the increasing number of cases among young people, Public Health officials said.
Last year, 2,024 people in Kern County reported living with HIV/AIDS, up 12 percent from the prior year. There was a 3 percent increase in the 13-to-19 and 20-to-29 age groups. Those in the 30-to-39 group saw the sharpest spike at 23 percent.
“We’re seeing people who are younger and younger,” said Shantell Waldo, a medical investigator with the Kern County Public Health Services Department, who scours Kern County streets looking for those with sexually transmitted diseases to pair them with services they need.
Her colleague, Enrique Ramirez, chalks that up to a recent lack of education and media exposure for HIV.
During the disease’s height in the 1980s and 1990s, HIV was considered a death sentence. High profile celebrities like Earvin “Magic” Johnson got it and fought it off, but actor Rock Hudson and musician Freddy Mercury died of it.
Millions of people from around the world picked up the 1990 issue of Life Magazine that depicted a haunting image of David Kirby, an AIDS activist, gasping for final breaths on his deathbed.
The disease couldn’t be ignored.
But now, treatment of the disease has seen so many advances that it’s fallen out of the public eye, Ramirez said. Younger people just aren’t getting tested.
“We see young people passing away,” Ramirez said. “And it’s 2017 — this shouldn’t be happening.”
There was just one medication available in the mid-1980s: Zudovudine. The antiretroviral delayed development of AIDS of patients infected with HIV, but its common side effects — which doctors described as “toxic” — included nausea, vomiting, headaches, fatigue, and muscle pain.
Doctors say there’s since been a host of new treatments developed and approved that reduce HIV to something as treatable as diabetes.
She tells her newly diagnosed patients that managing HIV these days is as easy as taking a birth control pill.
There’s also been developments in preventative medication, like Truvada, an HIV antiviral that blocks the virus from replicating in the bloodstream, said Dr. Frank Lang, an infectious disease physician with Kaiser Permanente.
At-risk patients can take that daily antiviral pill and, as one advocate said Friday, decrease the chances of contracting HIV to a level “slightly higher than that of a nun.”
And lifestyles can change, too. It used to be that those with HIV were shunned from having children for fear of passing the disease off to their newborns. Now, with proper treatment that suppresses the virus from making copies, that’s not the case.
“Recent studies show that if you’re undetectable, the risk of transmission to your negative partner and children is very, very low and close to zero,” Franco said, adding that those with HIV can lead long, normal and healthy lives. “HIV should not be a death sentence anymore.”