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AIDS victim gives first-hand account

By William Chu

and Kristine AuYeung

MIT students were presented on Thursday night with the opportunity to find out what having AIDS is like from a first-hand source. Sidney Borum, a Jamaica Plain resident who discovered that he had the AIDS virus one year ago, held an intimate discussion with over 60 students in an MIT classroom.

The talk was sponsored by AIDS Response at MIT (ARMIT) as the concluding event of AIDS Awareness Week. This was not the first lecture for Borum who has talked before various groups and high schools in the Boston area. Borum and other people with AIDS volunteer to speak through the AIDS Action Committee, which is how Kevin Rathbun, a member of ARMIT, arranged for Borum to speak.

"Tonight, my life is an open book ... by the end of the evening you'll know more about living than you ever have," Borum told the room. Borum spoke frankly and openly, and with no restrictions on what kind of questions could be asked of him or his lifestyle on the single condition that the atmosphere be one of respect.

He started off with a game which depicted how quickly the AIDS virus can be transmitted. Folded slips of paper handed out to each individual who entered the room designated whether he or she had the virus. Before allowed to peek at the slips everyone had to shake hands with two other people in the room. Shaking hands symbolized a sexual encounter. With only two persons "discovered" as having AIDS, there was no one in the room who wasn't at risk.

Borum then asked people to finish the statement "People with AIDS are ..." as a lead into the common misconceptions that exist about those who have the virus. Borum said he has decided to dedicate his life to dispelling these myths. He wants to make the public aware of the fact that a person with AIDS is not necessarily ill. "Do I look sick to you?" asked Borum, "I don't consider myself sick."

What he has, Borum says, is a disease -- or as he pronounces it "a dis-ease." The AIDS virus in itself isn't fatal, but the fact that it leaves the infected person defenseless against various complications is fatal. There are 19 afflictions that an AIDS victim is susceptible to that a person with normal defense functions will not contract.

The first thing that does strike one about Borum is his energy and animation. A person with AIDS is still a human being, Borum said, and is still capable of leading a healthy productive life.

Many misunderstandings about the disease have occurred through the media, Borum said. The misconceptions that people have is half the battle over the stigma about AIDS. Once being tagged as HIV positive, not only does the victim have to deal with the fact itself, but he or she also has to face the social isolation that often ensues, Borum explained. Many infected individuals are disowned by their families and shunned by friends. In Borum's case, he was lucky to have a supportive family. But when Borum's work colleagues found out he had contracted the disease, they went to his boss and demanded that he be fired.

Borum had an equally bad experience with his medical treatment. Initially, he was improperly diagnosed as having a thyroid condition. When he was subsequently properly diagnosed, the medical staff put him in an isolation ward and instructed the personnel to treat him wearing face masks and rubber gloves. Unsatisfied with the medical care that he was receiving, Borum checked himself into a second hospital where he received more professional and humane care.

Today, and for the rest of his life, Borum must exist on a strict regiment. Every four hours, day and night, he takes the drug AZT and periodically gets misted with aerosolized pantamadine. Both drugs help prevent the onset of illnesses that he has lost immunity to.

The costs of these drugs sum to $18,000 a year. Borum qualifies for Medicaid and that covers the cost of his medicine. This is not the case for many other HIV positive individuals who can't afford the high prices, Borum said. These drugs are still experimental, and AIDS research is complicated by the fact that the virus cannot survive outside its human host. Therefore all the testing needs to be performed either on viruses that are similar to AIDS or directly on AIDS patients who volunteer.

The most common way AIDS is transmitted is through direct blood contact, specifically the practice of sharing needles among intravenous drug users, according to Borum. The exchange of other bodily fluids, such as semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk, can also spread the virus, Borum said.

People who are sexually active are a high risk group. Borum strongly advocated that those who are sexually active must practice safe sex, particularly the use of condoms. Asked if saliva could also be the route of transmission, Borum replied an amount on the order of 9.6 gallons of saliva would have to be exchanged to represent a significant risk.

Anonymous testing for the AIDS virus is provided by various clinics in the Boston metropolitan area. For more information, Borum suggested contacting the AIDS Action Hotline: 536-7733.