DENVER (KDVR) — On World AIDS Day, we remember those who were lost and celebrate those who are living with HIV.
In 1983 — five years prior to the first World AIDS Day — people in Colorado came together to help those suffering from AIDS. To this day, their legacy still makes a difference through the Colorado Health Network.
The network is the largest AIDS service organization in the state. It was created to get patients to medical appointments, to the grocery store or to an attorney to sort out end-of-life affairs. Over the years, it has evolved.
“Back in the early days, it really was a death sentence, unfortunately,” said Colorado Health Network CEO Darrell Vigil.
But Vigil is optimistic. What was a deadly disease is now, if treated, a chronic condition. Government health officials say those achieving undetectable viral loads cannot pass HIV to others.
“You can get your viral load down to an undetectable level, which means you really can live a normal, healthy life and, absent a cure, that’s a miracle really,” Vigil said.
It’s that miracle that saved the life of the Rev. Jim Mitulski, a pastor who formerly served in Denver.
“I do feel lucky to still be alive and glad to be alive,” Mitulski said.
The 63-year-old, who is now a pastor in Minnesota, came out as gay when he was 16 years old. He also found the courage to talk publicly about his 1995 HIV diagnosis to help push back against stigma.
“There is still a lot of stigma around HIV and AIDS,” Vigil said.
He points to the stigma, combined with cultural, racial and socioeconomic disparities, as factors that allow the HIV epidemic to continue despite PrEP — medications that can be used to prevent HIV contraction in high-risk populations.
“It was always a disease that disproportionately affected marginalized communities, people of color, African American communities and Latino communities, especially,” Mitulski said. “And that continues to be true today. Racism kills just like homophobia kills.”
The Colorado Health Network works to push back against the disparities. It serves as a bridge linking those who lack access to healthcare to testing, PrEP and, if needed, treatment.
The latest HIV treatment is a long-term injectable that takes away the need for daily oral medication.