'Still a person'

ON FORM: Jacob Feenstra is training for the Auckland Half Marathon.
ON FORM: Jacob Feenstra is training for the Auckland Half Marathon.

Jacob Feenstra thought he'd received a death sentence when he was diagnosed with HIV nine years ago.

Now the 39-year-old Orakei man is training for the Auckland Half Marathon and hopes to raise money and awareness about the virus that is just a part of his life.

He is coming out about his HIV positive status to combat misconceptions about the disease.

"Most people that hear the word HIV and see me wouldn't put the two together. There's a lot of stigma attached to it and there really shouldn't be.

"In the end it's just a virus in my body. There's no point in being silent."

Mr Feenstra's battle with HIV began in 2004 when he started to suffer strong flu-like symptoms.

His doctor, who was also a close friend, broke the news.

He had contracted the HIV virus after having unprotected sex and would have to take suppressant drugs daily for the rest of his life to stop the disease progressing to Aids.

"I just burst into tears.

"They said it wasn't a death sentence but you can hear something and not believe it because of the history that's attached to those three letters."

Mr Feenstra tried to continue with his life as normal and put it to the back of his mind.

It is only now, nine years later, that he has been able to face the virus, he says.

"There was a whole lot of shame and guilt that came with it that I've been able to release. It's changed my life. Now I can do something with it."

Mr Feenstra says there are not that many HIV positive New Zealanders who are willing to put their hands up and have a conversation about it.

He says that is largely because not too long ago HIV was considered a sexually-transmitted terminal illness - a misconception he is hoping to change.

"I wish we would live in a world where it's not brave to talk about it. As long as people say to me speaking out about it is brave, there's still work to be done."

Mr Feenstra has always been active but says running a half marathon will still be a challenge.

He started training last month and will be working his way up to 21km for the November event with the New Zealand Aids Foundation team Running for Zero.

Foundation director Shaun Robinson says this is a big chance to change perceptions.

Proceeds will go towards services for people with HIV.

Mr Robinson says the idea is to empower the community to be part of the solution.

"It's a community event and it's very public.

"Many people fight a lot of misunderstanding, ignorance and stigma because of HIV. They need to stand up and say ‘I may have this lifelong virus but I'm still a person'."


East And Bays Courier