A Gadsden man was featured in a global photography series by Shutterstock and ViiV Healthcare Global that seeks to change public perceptions of those living with HIV.
HIV advocate Warren O’Meara Dates said he signed onto the project because he wants to be sure “the narrative is being told from our community members’ perspectives, not from the science.”
The collection, titled “HIV in View,” highlights people from around the world who live with the human immunodeficiency virus. Its main goal, according to the participating companies, is to serve as an “anti-stigma collaboration” to show “empowering images of real people living with HIV.”
The hope is that it will help remove outdated stereotypes that exist with the virus.
“I believe that the goal of working with them [Shutterstock and ViiV] was to show thriving lives of those living with HIV,” Dates said. “And because I am one of those individuals who can successfully manage my disease with everyday life, I thought that I would be a good example to people that they could be successful despite a diagnosis.”
The collaboration between Shutterstock and ViiV also recognizes the 40th anniversary of the first published documentation of HIV and AIDS in the U.S., on June 5, 1981. The succeeding epidemic had claimed 32.7 million lives as of 2019.
“That was another reason I found it to be valuable to be a part of this project,” Dates said. “As someone who was around when HIV and AIDS began, and now to be in my 40s and thriving, that was a really nice dichotomy to be able to show people that it’s possible to live long term, to be healthy and that if you are interested in relationships, that you can also have a family.”
Dates said he was diagnosed with HIV and AIDS on Nov. 2, 2009. At the time, he said, doctors and other medical professionals told him he only had 8 days left to live. He learned later that his mother was given an even shorter prognosis.
“I knew from my ministerial background that this was not what it appeared to be from a medical perspective,” he said. “That it was actually part of a journey in my faith and my calling in my purpose of life. That I was born for this.”
He added that 14 days after his diagnosis, he was being treated with medication he actually was allergic to, saying “that alone” turned out to be miraculous in his case.
“I said to them [doctors and medical staff] that I would be the medical miracle they went to school to study about,” he said, “and that was indeed the case.”
He explained that as part of his treatment, he routinely sees his health are providers for managed care “like anyone else would.” He said the CDC and the state of Alabama have adopted the concept of “U=U,” which translates to “undetectable equals untransmittable.”
“What we know now is that a person who is in managed care at six months or longer with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit the virus to anyone else,” Dates said. “I’m proud to know that I was a part of the force of people who were able to get our state to adopt such a policy … .”
He said the policy helps in lessening the stigma surrounding the virus. “We know people living with HIV tend to have a longer life outcome than people who have never been to the doctor,” he said. “So that’s hope and that’s great news.”
Dates said the next steps that are being taken are biomedical advancements in long-term treatment plans such as injectables and patches instead of daily medications.
“When I started this journey, just for my HIV treatment, I was taking 28 pills a day,” he said. Now his treatment plan involves a monthly injection, which was approved by the FDA in January. It’s the same level of treatment that keeps him virally suppressed, just without oral medication.
Dates noted that COVID-19 is being treated with some of the antiviral therapies that have treated HIV for years. He dedicated his first podcast episode, “Got 2 B Real with Warren and Mark,” to the intersectionality between COVID-19 and HIV.
“We had medical providers who treat HIV on to talk about the nuances between the two disease states, and pharmacists on to talk about what the medications and the vaccine looked like,” he said. “We wanted to dispel some of the fear that came with accessing the vaccine. So we were intentional with making sure our voice was a leading one to be an educational conduit for information.”
Dates speculates that treatments for HIV also working for COVID-19 patients sets up a scenario for finding a cure for the former, potentially by 2030.
“I think ultimately, we have to keep putting our foot on the gas pedal like we are with COVID-19,” he said.
Since being diagnosed, Dates has started a nonprofit organization, The 6:52 Project Foundation. It began with a focus on the global impact on those living with HIV and AIDS from 15 to 35, but since has been expanded because of his role with the ADPH as a consultant for HIV prevention and care.
The organization was founded in January 2010, and was recognized by the state in February of that year. Dates explained that the name of the organization relates to the exact time he was born.
“I laid in my hospital bed and practically built my organization, as I knew that this is what it was going to be,” he said.
Dates also is a co-founder of NEAL Together, an organization focused on working with rural communities to eliminate the stigma against members of the LGBTQ+ community. This organization was founded in 2015.
Dates ran for the Gadsden City Council in 2014, and said his HIV status was used against him in the campaign.
“This was from fear and not understanding that I still had the capacity to be able to do the job despite the diagnosis,” he said.
He said he tells people that disease management for HIV is no different than that for other chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.
“Many people are afraid just because of the history and the stigma behind it from its inception in the early ’80s,” he added.
Dates said anyone who is “sexually engaging” is at risk to contract HIV or AIDS, regardless of race, gender identity, or sexuality.
“At any given time when you engage in risky sexual behaviors, the risk exists,” he said. “I tell people often that, in my sexual history, the first time I had consensual sexual activity, I unfortunately contracted two STDs.”
Still, Dates said anyone who receives an HIV diagnosis and seeks treatment can live a whole and healthy life “just like anyone else would.”
To learn more about Dates and his journey and to listen to his podcast, visit his website. To learn more about HIV and AIDS, visit the CDC website or this website. To learn more about “HIV in View,” visit the collaboration page.