FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (WNCN) – Since 1988, Dec. 1 has marked “World AIDS Day” as an opportunity for those around the globe to unite in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
Dec. 1 allows those in the fight to show their support for the more than 35 million living with the virus that causes AIDS and remember the 40 million more who have died.
Currently, southern states are considered ground zero for new infections in the U.S.
Last year, the U.S. government estimated nearly 37,000 people were living with HIV or AIDS in North Carolina alone.
But one Fayetteville man is working to change that – and is living proof of a better tomorrow.
“I’m living with HIV, and HIV does not define who I am,” Art Jackson said. “It is just a part of my total being.”
HIV has been a part of who Jackson is for the past 27 years when he first learned of his status while living in New York City.
When asked what was going through his mind when he first heard he was HIV positive, Jackson gets a faraway look in his eye.
“I’ll never forget it; it was a cold, cold, cold day,” Jackson recalled. “I got to the health center, [and after the nurse walked in] I could see something was wrong.
“I literally walked from 112th and Lexington Avenue before I realized I was in Time Square,” Jackson said when asked what he did after learning his status. “You’re talking almost 80 blocks, [and] it was freezing cold.
“I was crying, and I thought I was going to die,” Jackson added. “I was literally given three months to live.”
And the 24-year-old didn’t want to wait that long.
“I contemplated jumping in front of a cab because of the images, the wasting, all those things that happened with people who were positive,” Jackson said. “I didn’t want to go out like that. I didn’t know how I was going to explain it to my family.”
That fear was short-lived. It was Jackson’s family that saved him.
“I got on the bus, and I made it to my mom,” Jackson said. “I told her, and I’m like I’m crying, ‘I’m going to die, I’m going to die,’ and she held me and she let me cry and she let me cry.”
For hours Alice Jackson held her son, until finally her words broke through, reminding Jackson of all that she had taught him.
“I was like, ‘well, I guess I’m going to have to live,’” Jackson recalled. “And she’s like, ‘that’s right, sometimes it’s going to be a second at a time, sometimes it’s going to be a minute at a time, sometimes it’s going to be where you don’t think you’re going to be able to make it but as long as you’re giving breath, you have to live. Now what are you going to do with your life. That’s going to be the question.’”
It was answering that question that eventually led Jackson to Fayetteville where his work as a community mobilizer for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation has brought him both local and national recognition.
Jackson is based on Murchison road between Fayetteville State University’s campus and U.S. 401. The area around this two-mile stretch has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the city.
“Areas of high poverty tend to be areas of high HIV rates,” Jackson explained.
In terms of newly reported HIV infections, Cumberland County has the fourth highest total in the state with 68, ranked behind Mecklenburg with 240, Wake with 112 and Guilford with 78.
“I’m just trying to find out what can we do to make this better,” Jackson said about his work. “How can we be a generation that’s free of HIV?”
There’s been progress. For instance, it used to take dozens of pills a day to combat the virus.
Now, Jackson just needs one.
The transmission rate from mother to child used to be nearly 50 percent. Now with proper care, it’s less than two.
But while Jackson is living proof you can live a normal life with the virus, his story from nearly 30 years ago is being repeated far too often in 2015.
“It saddens me today that HIV has decimated African American youth ages 13 to 29,” Jackson said shaking his head. “We are losing the battle when 64 percent of all new infections are African American.”
Every nine minutes, somebody learns they are HIV positive. Looking ahead to next year’s “World AIDS Day,” Jackson wants to flip that statistic.
“I want it that every nine minutes, somebody is being educated on how not to become HIV positive,” Jackson said emphatically. “If we could have that stat in there, I think that would be awesome.”
According to Jackson, education is key – not just learning about your status but learning how to prevent contracting the virus.
For more information on how to volunteer or help both those infected with and affected by HIV, check out these local groups: