When Tennessee native Marvelyn Brown was diagnosed with HIV at age 19, she didn't realize that HIV could be transmitted through heterosexual contact. She was hospitalized with pneumonia, and doctors discovered she had HIV during a battery of tests, a mere three weeks after she had been infected. By writing her new autobiography, The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful, and (HIV) Positive, the now 24-year-old says she tries to raise awareness among young people of HIV/AIDS and how it's transmitted.
Since her diagnosis, Brown has toured the country providing HIV education and has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and America's Next Top Model. On her blog, she says that she persists in promoting HIV awareness despite all the flak she takes from people who believe she is "glamorizing" HIV/AIDS. "I contracted a 100% PREVENTABLE disease, people, which...is my message, not how glamorous I look doing it," she wrote in a recent blog posting. "Bottom line, HIV sucks, I swear."
A former high school track and basketball player, Brown worked and partied hard after high school, she says, but didn't consider herself to be in a high-risk group for HIV. Now, Brown says she hopes that her book, released Tuesday, will shed some light on HIV's impact on young black women like herself. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for black women ages 25 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 56,300 new HIV infections occurred in the United States in 2006. African-Americans—who make up just 13 percent of the United States population—accounted for about 45 percent of new HIV infections in 2006, the CDC reports. Routine HIV testing has been widely recommended by the CDC and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which recently called for all women ages 19 to 64 to get tested.
U.S. News talked with Brown about her new book and living with HIV.
When you were diagnosed with HIV in 2003, you didn't know the disease was transmitted through heterosexual contact. Why?
I feel like it's out there, but it's not out there enough. I just couldn't make the connection because I didn't feel like it affected me. I also feel like there should've been more emphasis on it in school. My health and wellness class was basically physical education. I feel like it should be separated. There was an old man teaching us about our bodies, and I didn't want to hear about it. The pictures in our health book didn't look like me or other young people I knew.
I think teachers and parents need to educate themselves about HIV so they can pass it down to us. When they were coming up, HIV wasn't an issue for them.
Do you know how you became infected with HIV?
I became infected through unprotected sex with a former boyfriend I trusted and loved. I have reason to believe that he knew he was HIV positive, partly because of the way he acts now and also because he said he was sorry.
How have you dealt with your diagnosis?
As I started getting more information, I became scared. I wondered, "What are my last days and months going to be like?" But the time when I really wanted to start taking care of myself was when I was told that my T-cell count [a measure used to help determine when a person has crossed the threshold from HIV to AIDS] was 30-something cells away from getting full-blown AIDS.
How is your health now?
My health is fine now. I take seven pills a day, including vitamins and HIV medicines. In previous medication regimens I was on, I lost so much weight. It also affected my liver to the point where my eyes were constantly yellow. I've faced every side effect there possibly was, from nausea to diarrhea. Now my body's gotten a little bit more used to the pills.
But medicine is only part of it. The positive attitude I have and the outlook on life is really what keeps me the most healthy. I also exercise, and I eat mostly organic foods.
Has this diagnosis had an impact on your relationships with family and boyfriends?
I would say it's brought me closer together with my family in a lot of ways. The entire first year after my diagnosis, I thought the world, including my family, was against me. But when it came down to it, they really just weren't educated and didn't know how to treat me. So now the relationship with my family is very good.
As for boyfriends, you can tell a lot about a man's character when you tell him that you have HIV. It actually helps me a lot in the dating world. I used to date a guy for years before I found out that he was no good. Now I find out in the first 10 minutes.
What message do you have for other young people?
The thing I really want them to take away from the book is the message of self-love. If you love yourself, you can protect yourself, and that eliminates HIV from the beginning.