In February 2023, at 19 years old, Zach Willmore discovered he was HIV positive.
“I really did feel like my life was over in that day,” he told NBC News. “It’s just so stigmatized when people hear that they have HIV and it’s forever."
After taking some time alone to process the news with friends and family in his home state of Missouri, the San Diego State University student decided to go public and create updates on his HIV-positive life for TikTok, where he’s accumulated 1.7 million followers.
In the inaugural video, Willmore said, “It’s Friday, February 17. I’m 19 years old. And yesterday, I found out that I got diagnosed with HIV… I feel drained emotionally, physically, everything.”
When he was met with support, he carried on the day-in-the-life videos and decided to educate followers and viewers about the auto-immune disease, including how it’s spread, the science of medication, and pays homage to various HIV activists and scientists.
“People are scared of the unknown,” said Willmore. “Information is power, so I really wanted to help people understand.”
Although he receives his share of haters and criticism, he said, “When I seem happy in my videos, it is because I am.”
He also noted he wanted the videos to highlight that having HIV does not mean you can’t have a normal life, and also to support those who feel they have to carry the condition in secret.
“This has been a healing process for me,” he said, noting that he still gets sad about his diagnosis at times. “The first week after, I really wanted to be over it. I really wanted to be good. I will be okay, but I’m still a work in progress.”