Activists promote World AIDs Day
Activists sponsor a World AIDS Day mock funeral procession in front of the White House, Tuesday, December 1, 2009, in Washington D.C. PHOTO BY OLIVER DOULIERY | ABACA PRESS
"Needles were being scattered, he was crying and the family was a basket-case of emotion." This was Thanksgiving 2009 for Lauren, a University of Memphis junior who asked to be identified by a pseudonym.
While many Americans are getting into the holiday spirit, activists and healthcare officials have a different agenda for Saturday - World AIDS Day. Free on-campus screenings are available today courtesy of the University.
Started in 1995, this day is meant to encourage victims and raise awareness about the human immunodeficiency virus and its predecessor, the acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Knowing the causes and preventative measures can help a person avoid contracting HIV. In Lauren's case, she found out her boyfriend had been shooting up heroin at lunch on Thanksgiving Day.
"Twenty percent of Americans have the infection and don't even know it," said Jennifer Wright of a local health department. Wright said less than half of the patients who come in for sexually transmitted disease testing consider the possibility of being infected with HIV.
"I have a brief consultation with each person before the testing, and when I get to HIV and AIDS, I am usually pushed away by them telling me they aren't gay," Wright said. She is discomforted that many don't realize they don't have to fit into a stereotype to be HIV positive - it can happen to anyone.
Popular culture brought AIDS to the public consciousness in the 90s after years of being swept under the rug. The movie "Kids," plays like "Rent" and episodes of "Nip/Tuck" all have characters who faced the possibility of being HIV positive. Despite the increase in awareness, the number of people infected grows each year.
From a high school seminar on World AIDS Day, Lauren knew the dangers of drugs, needles and sexual activity with a user.
"As selfish as it sounds, the first thing I thought about was my safety," she said. The following Monday, she went to a local clinic to be tested.
A new person contracts HIV every 9.5 minutes, according to AIDS.gov.
"You would be surprised how many people are hesitant and refuse treatment," said Joe Hunt, who has travelled to Africa to help those infected with HIV. Although the number of infections there are high, Hunt said many people don't want it to be known that they have HIV or AIDS.
Some sneak to him for help with their condition. Seeking medical treatment brings forth the risk of being shunned from the village if anyone finds out why. Hunt encourages Americans to take advantage of the confidential services offered and to get tested.
"The best way to start treating an illness is to find out you have it," he said.
Lauren said she had never thought about having HIV until the discovery that Thanksgiving day.
"I didn't want to take any risks with my health like he had been taking with me," she said of her then boyfriend. She now finds it important to encourage her friends to be tested regularly.
Sarah Hoover is in the process of registering a FACE AIDS chapter on campus that will communicate with Rwanda about its fight against AIDS.
"We are a small organization as of right now, but anyone can make an impact," Hoover said. FACE AIDS chapters around the United States team up with Partners in Health, a group that has doctors stationed in Rwanda, by selling pins and ribbons to raise money.
The overall goal of the organization is to raise awareness about people battling social injustices and to help them in any way possible.
Hoover stressed that no matter how little money is raised or how few people join in, that it is still money that wasn't previously dedicated to AIDS awareness, treatment and prevention. She said supporting World AIDS Day helps people in America and other countries as well.
Jose Cruz has been living with HIV for 3 years. When he was first diagnosed, he didn't know about efforts made for people in the United States living with the infection. In April of 2011, he learned about World AIDS Day, and felt relief.
"It may be clichÃ© to say, but at that moment, I knew I wasn't alone," Cruz said.
Justin Campbell became a member of an online support group a few years ago to cope with his father's condition.
"It was hard at first," he said, "but after a few weeks of talking with others, I realized that finding out was better than him getting no treatment at all."
Campbell's dad had been a drug user for many years. After switching to intravenous drugs, he became infected with the virus from a contaminated needle.
Campbell described it as "the kind of thing you think will never happen to you." His first-hand experience took a toll on his personal life. Campbell gives credit to the HIV/AIDS Tribe website and World AIDS Day for helping him through the changes his family went through as a result of his dad's illness.
"I didn't know what to do, what to think or how to feel, but the greatest thing about it was someone else had been through this and they were willing to help me get through it, too," he said.
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