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Suffering in silence

Josanta Gray | 4/18/2012, 5 p.m.

Thirty-six-year old Samantha Glenn contracted HIV four years ago after having unprotected sex with her boyfriend. Glenn's four children were the only ones who knew her status--until now.

"To this day, no one in my family knows. I kept it to myself. I told them I had cancer cells in my uterus," Glenn said. "Lack of education and ignorance within my family prevented me from telling them the truth. This was easier for them to accept, but it's like I'm leading a double life."

Glenn cannot say with assurance whether or not her partner knew he had HIV. She is not bothered by the possibility of him knowing his status and failing to mention it to her.

"I wasn't angry with him; I was hurt," Glenn said. "I take sole responsibility, because I should have known to use protection."

Sex is like a game of Russian roulette for more than 1 million people in the United States; and HIV is the gun. In the 30th year since the first reported case of AIDS was documented, researchers and those affected are commemorating the milestones they have reached. However, in light of these achievements, and in spite of the openness of such high-profile HIV-positive persons as Magic Johnson, it is a harsh reality that many HIV-positive people are ashamed to disclose their status.

Others, however, believe HIV-positive individuals should openly discuss their status in order to help eradicate the epidemic. Statistics clearly show they are not alone--so why is open disclosure an issue?

Glenn and countless others are choosing to suffer in silence because they believe HIV ignorance and lack of disclosure is embraced in the African American community.

"I had a fear of rejection," Glenn said. "I wasn't ready at the time, nor was I strong enough to accept it."

This is a silent but deadly approach; one many researchers do not agree with. Despite Glenn's experience, many researchers believe it is wrong to underestimate the amount of HIV education within the African American community. As of August 2011, African Americans represented approximately 14 percent of the population, but they account for an estimated 44 percent of new HIV infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control. With the community bearing this much of the burden, it appears as if everyone should know to proceed with caution.

"People do have some basic information on HIV," said Cynthia Davis, assistant professor for the Medical Sciences Institute at Charles Drew University. "They want to know their status. They want to know they are clear."

Davis strongly believes education is visible in the African American community, but she admits it was not always so.

"When I first started doing this work in the late '80s, we would go out in the community and hand out literature and condoms. People would totally avoid our table," Davis said. "After several years, people became more open to picking up the condoms in a public venue and asking questions."

Glenn admits she was somewhat cognizant of sexually transmitted diseases, the dangers and the consequences. As a self-described hypochondriac, she never hesitated to learn her HIV status. She never missed the chance to schedule her annual physical. And during those visits, her physician always tested for STDs even when symptoms were not present. But one day Glenn's physician called her in to deliver the unsettling news. Her initial reaction reflected her own lack of education and experience with the infection.