WASHINGTON, D.C. (WUSA)-- Dawn Averitt Bridge is living proof that being infected with the virus that causes AIDS does not mean an end to a fulfilling, vibrant and productive life.
She says, "People are living longer, healthier and better lives and we now have 30 approved drugs to treat and manage HIV. That's a huge, unparalleled success. Yet we still have a disease that most Americans don't think is really our problem."
Averitte Bridge has lived with HIV for more than two decades. She believes she was infected during a rape when she was 19; she got the diagnosis in 1988.
"Stigma, of course, was enormous (back then)," she remembers. "When I was diagnosed my doctors said: Don't read anything, it's too confusing. And don't tell anyone because this is going to ruin your family's life."
Averitt Bridge is here in DC for the international AIDS conference as founder of "The Well Project", a non-profit that focuses on women with HIV. She says we're at a pivotal moment in both testing and treatment for two reasons. One is the approval of Orasure, and over the counter HIV test anyone can get at the pharmacy. The FDA has also granted a new use for Truvada, an AIDS drug that can actually protect high-risk people from infection.
Averitt Bridge says, "I think this is such an exciting and essential moment in time in the fight against HIV. We really can move towards an HIV free generation and an HIV free America."
Averitt Bridge also says advances in anti-retroviral drugs enabled her to have two healthy pregnancies, and give birth to two HIV negative children.
She says, "So now I have an 8 and a 10 year old and I am a mini-van driving soccer mom. And I'm standing on the soccer fields next to lots of people who look like me and some people who don't but most people would not know that they're standing next to an HIV positive soccer mom."
"And the reality is, that if you look across this country there are 100,000, 200,000 of us standing on sidelines and at PTA meetings and driving mini-vans and shuttling kids and being a critical and important part of our society."
But Averitt Bridge says you may never know their 'status."
"Because of the shame and stigma there are so few women who can talk about that and kind of come out and share their experiences and their stories. Because they have to worry about the impact on their children, the biases and the poor information out in the community."