In the first video, Zachary Wilmore is sitting in his childhood bedroom in a pink T-shirt, his blonde hair swept to the side, and starting to put on makeup.
Wilmore, a 19-year-old freshman at San Diego State University, says he spent his winter break experiencing flu-like symptoms, including fever, chills, and nausea. He has been tested for coronavirus, influenza and STDs “just to be sure”.
All but one of the test results were negative.
“They don’t put HIV on the hit list,” Wilmore said. “So they called me.”
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When his doctor explained his diagnosis on February 16, Wilmore said in an interview, “I felt like the world was ending.” “I just wanted to drain all the blood from my body.”
HIV remains stigmatized and a misunderstood disease. But over the past month, Wilmore has taken his 1.8 million followers on a journey through his fears, confusion, and eventual acceptance of his illness in a series of more than 20 videos. Sometimes, he’s as cheerful as ever, putting on makeup and dating a shopping trip to Zara with his mom. In others, he dives into details about medication and urges his followers to wear condoms.
One of his most popular posts — an eight-second video of Wilmore staring into the distance with the words “What it felt like being diagnosed with HIV and having to go back to class like nothing happened” — has been viewed more than 15 million times.
“When I shoot my videos in my own playful way, it’s because I feel happy,” Wilmore told The Post. “I think it’s important to highlight how it’s not just the sad parts. … I’m still living my life. This disease doesn’t define you.”
Wilmore says he’s mostly encouraged by his followers, including some who have shared they’ve been living with the disease for decades. “That was really powerful for me because it gave me a broader perspective on the world,” Wilmore said.
There are a few critics who say he takes the disease lightly. tweeted podcast host Elijah Schaeffer To his 600,000+ followers about Willmore: “Bro thinks HIV is cute and makes him unique. Generation Z is so confused.”
This kind of criticism is based on “a lack of knowledge of the subject and a lack of understanding of why it is important,” says Wilmore.
After being diagnosed, Wilmore immediately called his parents and decided to go home.
“I always specifically told my mom everything, and I knew she only wanted the best for me and wanted me to be safe,” Wilmore said.
Lila Wilmore was sitting hundreds of miles away in her Missouri home when she got the call.
“It was devastating at first. My heart and stomach sank. But I also had a feeling, ‘Is this really true? Are we sure that’s the case?'” she said.
Wilmore told her son, “I feel like there’s nothing he can’t handle.”
Standing nearby, Theodore, Zachary Wilmore’s father, overheard the conversation.
“Her voice was tight,” Theodore Wilmore recalled. When she hung up,” she said, “I have life-changing news.”
There are 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States and more than 35,000 new infections in 2020, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Young gay and bisexual men accounted for 84 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in people ages 13 to 24 in 2020, the CDC reports.
After decades under the shadow of the virus, he now lives HIV-free
Zachary Wilmore knew little about the disease when he was diagnosed. “I was told that people with HIV can live to 70, but I don’t even want to be over 20,” he said in one of the videos.
His father, an emergency room physician, set out to help put the treatment options right.
“Forty years ago it was a death sentence,” said Theodore Wilmore, “now it’s a chronic, treatable disease, which is wonderful.” “But it still requires a young man to be very attentive and take medicine every day.”
HIV-related death rates peaked in 1995 and have declined significantly.
For many, the stigma surrounding HIV remains, said Lawrence Yang, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at New York University who has studied stigma reduction for health diseases for 25 years.
“For stigma change to happen at the societal level, we need more people to share their stories,” Yang said.
In a March 1 video that has been viewed 585,00 times, Zachary Wilmore explains to his viewers that his treatment is “pretty simple.” He takes one pill a day at 11 am. Within a few months, he may be able to take an injection instead of a pill.
“Today was the longest day ever, my appointment started at 11 and lasted until 4, but treat me!” He said. “Also there was a lot of good news at this meeting. So my viral load will be high in the millions and I have a viral load of 11,400.”
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After a few days, he told the subscribers that he was feeling better. His cough had dissipated and the swollen lymph nodes had receded.
“I feel like I have more energy in general,” Wilmore said in the March 5 video.
Before his diagnosis, Willmore’s TikTok was filled with posts about his daily life as a college student, and fraternity rushes. He said diverting attention to his HIV status has been challenging, but it is an important part of educating the public about the disease.
This is the same young man who told classmates he was gay through a PowerPoint presentation during his seventh-grade social studies class, his mother recalls. She told him at the time, “People are going to want to know why I tell them that. Because I think it’s stupid for me to lie about who I am, and I don’t want my friends to lie for me.” Lila Wilmore said.
“He was always in control of his narrative,” she said.
In early April, Zachary Wilmore reached a new milestone. The virus is no longer detectable in his blood.
“I’m so excited… This is quite an accomplishment for me even though I haven’t really done anything,” Wilmore said in a video. “I feel good today, it’s a great day.”