MANATEE -- In the early 1980s, a positive test for HIV seemed like a death sentence.
Bruce Fournier tested positive for HIV in 1985, when approval of the first drug to treat AIDS, called AZT, was still two years in the future.
Fournier’s doctor told him he might have eight months to live.
Seemingly against all odds, Fournier, now 55, survived and is an AIDS activist in Bradenton.
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“I found my niche and I really like what I do,” he said.
He has been involved with Trinity Charities, whose mission is to provide support, education, prevention and intervention for those affected by HIV/AIDS in the Manatee-Sarasota area.
He is also involved in a National Institutes of Health study.
Researchers want to know why there are some people with HIV who need medication to stay alive, and others who, like Fournier, remain under a doctor’s care, but can go off their meds and not get sick.
Safe, rather than sorry, could be the watchword from Fournier and health professionals.
“It only takes you one brief lapse in judgment to cause you grief for the rest of your life,” Fournier said.
Getting tested is important, as are abstinence or healthy choices, said John Burns, spokesman for the Manatee County Health Department.
Getting tested can “relieve a lot of anxiety,” and can get a person who is infected the treatment they need to save their life, Burns said.
Those who test positive are provided with follow up treatment.
“We assist the patient with accessing social programs such as disability, food stamps, emergency food baskets, clothes and other needs,” Burns said in a written statement.
Locally, there are 842 people living with HIV or AIDS, he said.
In 2010, the Manatee County Health Department conducted 3,827 HIV tests and found 14 positives, Burns said.
Those tests, conducted at the health department or in outreaches around the community, are free.
“HIV testing is now widely available. Diagnostic testing continues to improve, providing more accurate results in a shorter period of time,” Burns said.
Test results are now available in 15 minutes.
The health department uses its mobile van to offer tests at gas stations, parks, coffee shops and other locations.
In addition, community events are scheduled throughout the year to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and a speakers bureau seeks opportunities to talk to groups of all kinds about the problem.
Better medication, better science, and more awareness are helping people live longer.
Despite the advances, people still die from HIV/AIDS. During 2009 and 2010, 41 people died from HIV/AIDS in Manatee County.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.