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Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette
Participants walk down Clinton Street from Headwaters Park East during the Northeast Indiana AIDS Walk on Saturday.

200 march in annual AIDS walk

When Ron Haas was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1985 – about five years after the first cases of infection with the virus were identified in the United States – things were a lot different than they are now.

People progressed to AIDS fairly rapidly, and death typically came not long after that.

Today, the 49-year-old Fort Wayne man is still alive – or, as he put it just before accepting the Volunteer of the Year award at Saturday’s Paint the Town Red AIDS Walk – “I’ve lived longer with HIV than without it.”

Haas said he’s participated in each of Fort Wayne’s18 AIDS walks, which raise awareness of the immune-system-destroying disease and raise money for the AIDS Task Force of Northeast Indiana. Haas also served as an educator for the agency, before a bout with an AIDS-associated pneumonia led him to file for disability but stay on as an active volunteer.

In those years, Haas said, he’s seen the concerns of patients change. “We’re seeing a new breed of client,” he said.

Today, it’s not uncommon for task force clients to be like him – getting older and seeing side effects from taking medications with potentially toxic consequences for many years.

Haas said he’s had to have a hip replaced and suffers from heart problems and nerve damage in his feet.

To combat the virus, along with his other problems and the side effects, he says, he now takes 21 different pills a day. His copayments total $1,600 a month; he says he gets help from a state program to pay for his medicines.

But the need to assist patients – who come from all economic and insurance-coverage backgrounds – continues, said Jeff Markley, the task force’s executive director since September.

Markley said the task force has about 400 clients in 11 northeast Indiana counties. It helps them with costs related to diagnosis, treatment and housing expenses and provides free testing, prevention education and post-infection counseling.

The task force was on track to raise $45,000 from the walk and a related “casual gala” Friday night, Markley said. About 200 people participated in the walk, which began around 10:30 a.m. in Headwaters Park and wound through downtown, he said.

“Back in the ’80s, we were in crisis mode, helping people dying from disease,” Markley said. “We’re now looking at assisting people with HIV wellness. We’re hoping to see them not progress to AIDS.”

He added: “We know now that if someone is HIV-positive and we can get them tested and diagnosed and into care with an infectious diseases M.D. and on the appropriate anti-retroviral therapy, that person’s life expectancy is not less than a person who is not infected.”

Indeed, Markley said, drugs can now drop a person’s virus load to virtually zero, at which point he or she is at low risk for infecting others. Some patients now need to take only one pill a day, he noted.

“That’s as close to totally managing an infection as you can get without curing it,” Markley said.

Another improvement in the quality of life for people with HIV is the Affordable Care Act, he said.

That act, often called Obamacare, means patients cannot be denied health insurance, so more HIV-positive people will be able to get better care, Markley said.

Haas said he was able to get good treatment and access to drug trials early on in his condition decades ago because he had good health insurance.

Standing under Headwaters’ main pavilion and facing a a 40-foot-long section of the national AIDS quilt, on loan for the walk, Haas said he feels grateful he did not become a statistic and can continue to fight for eradication of the disease.

“I’m here,” he said. “I can’t complain about that.”