A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of meeting Eric Castellanos, President of C-NET+ (Collaborative Network of People Living with HIV), the only NGO in Belize for people living with HIV or AIDS, and focal point of REDCA+ (Central American Network of People Living with HIV) at our New York office. Eric came to the United States to participate in a conference in Idaho and took time out of his schedule to visit and tell us about his moving story as a beneficiary of our AIDS Treatment Access Program.
Eric is 36 years old, lives in Belize and was diagnosed with HIV in 1995. In order to receive necessary antiretroviral therapy, he had to move to Mexico and reside there for years. However, he was unable to restore his health due to constant shortages of medicine. As a result, he suffered many side effects and a viral load increase as his CD4 was decreasing.
Eric later returned to his native country but still had to travel back to Mexico constantly to take laboratory tests of his viral load since Belize laboratories were incapable of performing this test. “My partner of 8 years had also been diagnosed but decided not to go into treatment because of the trouble it had caused me. I respected his decision until he was hospitalized a couple of years later in very serious condition; the doctors said it was too late. In his last hours, he asked me to start him on the antiretroviral therapy but, as the doctors had said, it was too late and he died days later,” said Eric.
The loss of his partner was very painful for Eric, however, it inspired him to become an activist and start fighting for the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS in Belize. “I will not let another friend or anyone else die because of poor treatment in their respective countries,” he said. Eric then began to connect with people in small communities. “I was telling everyone about my health and the hardships I’ve endured to stay alive. Slowly but surely, people with similar conditions as mine approached me seeking advice and sometimes simple conversation.”
Eric became the first person in Belize who went public as someone living with HIV. He then began appearing in the media and even reached the state agencies as a representative of civil society on the Care and Treatment Committee and the National AIDS Commission. Raising the voice of people like him, only wanted to continue living their lives regardless of their health situation. “Our greatest achievement was to create a non-profit organization for people living with HIV in Belize. Thanks our commitment and consistent advocacy work, we got the Health Department to give us the first machine to performs viral load tests. Now we are fighting to make sure it starts operating. We are also working on the purchase of new, more effective antiretroviral drugs that have fewer side effects,” Eric explained.
Over the years, Eric’s achievements got greater and greater but his health deteriorated as he needed a more effective therapy that was unavailable to him in his native country. Fortunately, in 2010, the secretary of REDCA+ introduced him to the work of AID FOR AIDS International in New York. After getting tested for resistance to particular drugs, it was determined that most of the antiretrovirals in his country did not work for him. It was then that he was admitted to the AIDS Treatment Access Program of AID FOR AIDS Intl; thereby enabling Eric to receive free medicine through the organization’s HIV Medicine Recycling Program from the US. “Before contacting AID FOR AIDS International, many people suggested I live in the United States because I could then access better medical treatment. However, I did not want to leave my work as an activist in my country,” says Eric.
It is impossible not to be joyful when Eric tells this part of his story, “It’s been a 10 year struggle to stay alive, while fighting the faults in the health and political system in my country.” When he finally started to improve with the new drugs, he was very excited as he walked around saying, “you know my viral load is undetectable? “”My CD4 is rising!” The medicine that I began to receive from AID FOR AIDS Intl certainly changed my life. Now my health is stable and I have more strength to keep working for others in Belize living with HIV. I am ecstatic about the fact that my people can have access to the same great care that I have been lucky enough to receive.”
Eric currently continues his work as an activist and is working hard on a proposal with AMFAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research) to train educators to make personal house visits to gay men affected by AIDS. “We designed this program specifically for gay men because, based on our experience, we see that the fear of being punished or imprisoned, due to the criminalization of homosexuality in Belize, keeps them from going to hospitals. As we work to eliminate this injustice, we would like to be able to empower these men by encouraging them to be fearless when receiving medical care and by giving them information regarding both prevention and their rights,” says Eric.
Before left our office we asked the question, “What is your dream?” He replied with a convincing grin: “More than a dream is a reality that is slowly taking shape. More and more people in Belize are working to improve the quality of life of those with HIV or AIDS; it is a dream already fulfilled. I would like to pass the torch on to someone who will build on this foundation. I also want to go to University to study Social Work and from there, continue to contribute to this cause in which we still have so much work to do.”