Harlem Woman is Face of AIDS Campaign

By Jeff Mays on October 11, 2011 6:27am 

Maria Davis, 51, holds the plaque she received after completing the New York City Marathon on behalf of AIDS care provider Harlem United. She is promoting a new amfAR campaign to show how a cure for HIV/AIDS would affect every day Americans.
Maria Davis, 51, holds the plaque she received after completing the New York City Marathon on behalf of AIDS care provider Harlem United. She is promoting a new amfAR campaign to show how a cure for HIV/AIDS would affect every day Americans.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Maria Davis sees herself as the face of HIV/AIDS for African-American women.

That wasn't the case when the 51-year-old Harlem resident discovered she had the disease in 1995 after applying for a life insurance policy.

"I didn't think I could catch HIV," she said. "I thought it was a gay white man's disease or something that ...IV drug users got.

"I wasn't part of any of those categories."

Nevertheless Davis, a hip-hop promoter who has worked with stars including Jay-Z, says she contracted the disease from a man she thought she was going to marry. Now, 16 years later, she's become one of the faces of amfAR's new Making AIDS History campaign.

The campaign is designed to put a face on the every day people that advances in AIDS cure research can affect, such as Davis. The campaign features a gay man from a small farming community and a woman who was born with the disease and diagnosed at the age of two.

''When you say research, people think of test tubes and microscopes. We wanted to humanize it and put a human face to the benefits of research," said amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost. "We are working on a cure. A lot of our research is focused on a cure and we want to show people what that actually means."

Since 1986, amfAR has invested $325 million in its programs and handed out more than 2,000 research grants. The group recently began a collaborative research program to bring researchers together.

Davis, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1998, said being involved with the campaign was enlightening.

"They covered the whole spectrum of people infected with AIDS," she said.

"From mothers to babies, African-Americans and whites. Straight, gay and elderly were included. No one can see this and say I'm not represented."

The larger part of her mission is making sure people do not become infected with the disease. For African-American women, Davis says there often seem to be other issues, like low self esteem, at play.

"We are taught as mothers, sisters and aunts to take care of everyone else first," she said. "But on an airplane, they tell you to put the oxygen mask on first before trying to help anyone else. We need to put the love mask on ourselves first."

Davis said living with the disease can be a challenge when she meets people who look at her and think the disease must not be that bad.

She said she will embark next month on her third New York City marathon on behalf of Harlem United, where she works as a peer educator.But what people don't see is the neuropathy that makes both legs feel like dead weight sometimes.

"I might look great, but you don't know what I'm struggling with. You didn't see me when I was 95 pounds with sores all over my body," said Davis.

Davis said recent funding cuts are also a challenge, as it means her insurance will no longer cover a medication she has taken for 16 years and that she believes helps to keep her healthy.

For amfAR, the campaign comes at a crucial time. Frost says that great scientific advances have been made toward a cure for AIDS.

"There's tremendous enthusiasm. The scientific community believes this can be done, it's not unreasonable to say we can have a cure for this disease in our lifetime," said Frost.

But funding for AIDS research is in decline.

"We are living through a terrible economic time and trying to make this case. It's a question of marshaling the right resources and investing that money in the right way so we are in a position to take advantage of scientific advances," Frost added.

Davis is hopeful she'll see a cure.

"The research is so important and amfAR has been the leader in research," she said. "Just because HIV/AIDS is now considered a chronic disease doesn't mean we can forget about it. I'm not going to let people forget about it."

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