Missouri Teen Chronicles HIV Diagnosis on TikTok to Spread Awareness and Encourage Acceptance

When Zachary Willmore, 19, initially got sick, he thought nothing of it. His symptoms of a fever, chills, nausea and dizziness were fairly mild. He was devastated to learn he has HIV, but has since dedicated himself to spreading awareness.

When influencer Zachary Willmore was diagnosed with HIV in February, he did something many are unwilling to do: he went public with his diagnosis. Not only did he share openly that he had HIV, he shared his journey with his nearly two million TikTok followers.

But the journey to being open about his diagnosis was not an easy one. The 19-year-old college student tells Inside Edition Digital’s Andrea Swindall that he was devastated by the news. 

“I sincerely felt gross,” he says. “I wanted to take a syringe and suck all the blood out of my body. I just felt disgusting.”

When Zachary initially got sick, he thought nothing of it. His symptoms of a fever, chills, nausea and dizziness were fairly mild. 

“I got a chest X-ray. I got nose swabs, throat swabs. Everything was coming back negative,” Zachary says. “So I decided to get an STD test. I did not think that I had anything, to be completely honest.”

After his diagnosis, he called his supportive parents, who booked him a flight home. In Columbia, Missouri, he could be with loved ones and process everything.

“I was an emotional wreck. I was crying. I was like, ‘I want to drop out of school,'" he says. “So it really did feel like the end of the world when I first received the news.”

Zachary began recording what he described as a virtual diary to work through everything. In doing that, he had a realization. 

“The biggest reason I was kind of devastated by this is because no one really talks about it. I haven't heard anything about it,” Zachary notes. “And I originally thought that it was in the '80s. I thought that it was a death sentence. And I was just uneducated.”

Zachary began posting the videos online. In them, he discusses various topics including what HIV is and how it's transmitted, taking medicine and stigmas associated with the disease.

“I had a lot of people reaching out to me saying that they've been through similar journeys or that they just are proud of me for coming out because they know someone who's been on a journey,” Zachary says. “And that's when I really felt comfortable posting and stuff because I was like, 'This is actually helping people. I'm glad that I've done this.'"

Although Zachary’s video had been helpful to many, he has also experienced negativity. Zach says this isn’t the first time he’s experienced online hate. He also did in 2021, when he was crowned the first male homecoming queen in the state of Missouri. 

But he says he's OK with receiving such backlash if it ultimately has a beneficial outcome. 

"If this gets my story out, if the hate comments are what is going to help it become more knowledgeable, and for people to be more knowledgeable on the subject, I'm OK with that," he says.

Because Zachary has been diligent with taking meds, he recently received news that he is undetectable. 

“People with HIV who take HIV medicine as prescribed and get and keep an undetectable viral load will not transmit HIV to their HIV-negative partners through sex,” HIV.gov reports.

Now Zachary is focused on getting a business degree at San Diego State University, dating and continuing to inspire others. 

“At first, it's going to feel terrible,” Zachary says to others going through similar experiences. “You're going to feel like this is the end of the world. But this is just such a small blip in your life until you get medicated. After you get past that, my life has returned to normal. Just take it one day at a time, because you've got this.”

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