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Adam Castillejo, Marc Franke and Paul Edmonds shared their stories overcoming HIV at the Hawaiʻi to Zero conference.

HIV/AIDS continues to be an ongoing health issue internationally, nationally and locally as dozens of people are diagnosed each year with the virus in Hawaiʻi, according to the Hawaiʻi State Department of Health (DOH). Since 2021, 64 people have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the state.

We want to do everything that’s possible to drive HIV to zero, which means zero stigma and zero deaths
—Cecilia Shikuma

Inspirational stories from people who have lived with the virus and discussions on finding a cure were among the highlights at the 5th annual Hawaiʻi to Zero Conference (H20) sponsored by various Hawaiʻi health partners including DOH, Hawaiʻi Center for AIDS (HICFA) at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) and DOH in September. It was the first time the conference has been held in person since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The HIV epidemic is not over,” said Cecilia Shikuma, director of HICFA, who has been working for more than three decades to combat HIV/AIDS. “We want to do everything that’s possible to drive HIV to zero, which means zero stigma and zero deaths.”

Since its opening in 1991 under the Hawaiʻi AIDS Clinical Trials Unit, HICFA has serviced more than 700 patients who are either infected or at-risk with HIV/AIDS. The clinic opened its current location in December 2015 at JABSOM, where clinical trials and research also take place.

“We participated in a lot of the advances, certainly in antiretroviral therapy,” Shikuma said. “So to us, it’s important that our HIV community participates in being the solution.”

Finding hope, a cure for HIV

When Adam Castillejo found out about his HIV diagnosis in 2003, doctors told him that he only had a few years to live.

“It’s kind of challenging for anyone,” said Castillejo, who shared his story at the H20 conference.

Castillejo was also diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2012 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma disease and underwent a vigorous chemotherapy regime for years, while being denied a bone marrow transplant due to his HIV/AIDS diagnosis.

“Being HIV, you are three times more likely to develop cancer,” he added. “I was diagnosed terminally ill in 2015. There were not many choices for me—and I realized that HIV was stigmatizing me.”

Although the circumstances seemed dire for Castillejo, he received overwhelming support from his partner, who helped him to resume to normal life.

Eventually, things looked up for Castillejo. A new medical team stepped in and allowed him to have the transplant he needed. The operation proved successful, and in 2016, Castillejo was confirmed to be cured of HIV.

“We want to give hope to people living with HIV today,” Castillejo said. “Don’t allow HIV to define you. I know it’s difficult, but people around the world are trying to find a cure for you out there. Stay strong and be positive.”

Solutions for neighbor island patients

Shikuma continues to look for solutions for those living with HIV/AIDS, particularly for those on the neighbor islands, many of whom also have underlying health conditions and have limited access to resources in their areas. She hopes that in the next year or so, the efforts will start to build momentum. HICFA sends a team to Maui and Hawaiʻi Island each month to provide these services as more start to develop.

“We talked about transportation being an issue,” said Shikuma, who also sees the stigma on HIV/AIDS as a concern. “As the HIV population ages, we’re going to face more issues—increases in heart attacks, dementia, heart disease, liver disease. But we’re also going to proactively have to think about how to support this community. Curing HIV is the final frontier of this research endeavor. And I’m hoping to be able to have some thoughts as to how to make this a reality.”

Read more on the JABSOM website.

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