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True Life: Jako speaks out about  being HIV positive

Natasha Nader / News Editor

Jennifer Jako thought of HIV as something that affected gay men and people she did not know. Then, at the age of 18, she contracted the virus.

Jako spoke Monday in Whitley and shared her experiences with HIV. She also offered advice to students and showed a clip from her documentary, "Blood Line," which aired on MTV in 1998 as "True Life:

It Could Be You."

Jako was infected with HIV while she was in college. She had sex with a friend who was unaware he had the virus, and after that, she stopped drinking and became abstinent. She decided to get tested for HIV, never expecting the results would come back positive.

Jako said on the day she found out she had HIV, she was completely in shock and her whole world fell apart.

"From that day, I knew I had to do something so that other people wouldn't end up with this disease," she said.

Jako thought that since being infected 15 years ago that over time, progress would be made in finding a cure for the disease. When she started making the film, one young American got infected with HIV every hour.  When the film aired on MTV, it jumped to two young Americans, and today, it is up to four an hour.

"I sincerely doubt we will be able to find a cure, but I think that within our lifetimes there will be a vaccine," Jako said.

She became very ill from the virus by the time she was 24 and said she was starting to die at 25. When she was 26, she began taking new medications for HIV that no one had taken before. She was told that if she did not, she would die in a year. The medications worked for her, but they don't work for everyone.

"We are so fortunate in our western world to have decent access to these medications," Jako said. "We live in a culture that is very privileged."

She said that she felt like no one could ever love her again and her biggest fear was infecting someone else. At 23, she met someone that was able to "look beyond her disease." They have been together for nine years and are now expecting a child.

She said that one of the main things she grieved about was the thought of never being able to have a child. She said that she could never allow her and her husband to be unprotected, so they did an "artificial self-insemination," a something Jako said was hard and complicated, but she also laughed while talking about the unique process.

Jako has complete viral suppression and said studies show there is less than a one percent chance that the disease can be transmitted to her baby.

"Everyone has risks when having a child; this is our risk we're willing to take," she said. "We will love and support our child no matter what happens."

Matjiua Kauapira, Elon's Periclean-in-Residence from Namibia, attended Jako's speech and also had lunch with her earlier on in the day.

During the question-and-answer session, Kauapira commented that she felt Jako is very brave and complimented her on her courage. She also asked Jako what she would do if she died or was not ale to be with her child for any reason.

Jako said she felt that was a good question and said, "I'm going to try to be there as long as I can. I think of death as a part of life now. I accept death much more."

She said she has lost a lot of friends over the years and two of the people in the documentary have died.

"I'm amazed to still be standing here today," she said. "We've got to take care of ourselves and we've got to take care of each other more than ever before."

Kauapira was surprised about the status of HIV/AIDS in the United States.

"I thought things were different here," Kauapira said. "I thought there was less stigma."

Periclean Scholars from the class of 2006 Raquel Corona and Rachel Copeland attended the event with Kauapira.

Copeland said she feels the issue is cross-cultural.

"It was special for her because in Namibia it's so much harder because it's everywhere," Copeland said. "It's important for her to see people with courage because in Namibia not everyone has courage."

Corona said she thinks it is important that Elon students get to hear speakers like Jako and have them share their experiences.

"It really brings it home," she said.

Jako told the students in the audience that they are in college because they have hopes and dreams for the future. She also said it is good health that makes these things that we dream about possible.

"The choices you make right now can change your life," she said.

Contact Natasha Nader at pendulum@elon.edu or 278-7247.

Natasha Nader / Photogapher

Jako was infected with HIV at age 18. She is now married and pregnant with her first child.

HIV/AIDS STATISTICS

-By the end of 2005, 40.3 million people were living with HIV/AIDS, including 17.5 million women and 2.3 million children under the age of 15.

-4.9 million people became infected with HIV in 2005, including 700,000 children. Of these, 3.2 million new infections occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa.

-In 2005 alone, a total of 3.1 million people died of HIV/AIDS-related causes.

-Worldwide, only one in 10 persons infected with HIV has been tested and knows his/her HIV status.

Facts gathered from Global Health Council.