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Local recognize 23rd World AIDS Day

BY CHASTITY DILLARD | DECEMBER 01, 2011 7:20 AM

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Two thousand Iowans have been infected by HIV/AIDS since the first case was reported in the United States in 1981.

In recognition of World AIDS day, organizations in the Johnson County community want to reduce the stigma attached the virus.

"It's a day where we commemorate all the people who lost their lives to HIV/AIDS and also the people currently fighting the disease," said Thuy Nguyen, the vice president of the UI Epidemiology Student Association.

As a volunteer for the Rapids AIDS Project during high school, Nguyen said she was stricken by the way people living with HIV/AIDS were treated poorly by the general population.

"The people I worked with, their lives really affected me," the 27-year-old said. "… [they were] stigmatized and judged, and they were really caring. I didn't think it was fair."

Over the past 30 years, roughly 1.1 million Americans have been infected by HIV/AIDS. And today, organizations throughout the area will host events to raise awareness, educate and offer testing in hopes of reducing that statistic.

"Not only is it a day of memorial, but we also recognize all the people who have contributed in the science of it and the treating of it and also bring awareness to it," Nguyen said.

Cody Shafer, an HIV health educator for the Johnson County Public Health Department, said the goal is to reinforce community responsibility.

"Risk doesn't happen one day a year," he said. "We have to keep having this conversation every day because the infection doesn't happen one day year."

The department hosts several programs, including rapid and outreach HIV testing and a program — Mpowerment — modeled to prevent transmission of the virus between men who have sex with men.
Jeffrey Crowley, the director of the Office of National AIDS Policy, said the nation has seen major progress.

"We have really tried to take our efforts off autopilot," Crowley said. "We are really trying to push people not only at the federal level, but at the local to do their parts to make sure that we are making progress."

The U.S. annual new infections have fallen from a high of 130,000 to 140,000 per year to about 50,000 new infections annually in recent years.

"We've made major progress, but we still have challenges we must address related to reducing new HIV infections, increasing access to care and reducing HIV-related health disparities," he said.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic doesn't just reside in the United States — more than 33.4 million people have been infected worldwide over the past 30 years.

Jaime Butler-Dawson, a Ph.D. student at the UI, saw the HIV/AIDS epidemic firsthand when she served in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso. Later, she became a public-health adviser for the division of global HIV/AIDS at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for three years.

"In a lot of African countries, AIDS is not talked about," she said. "People just want to ignore it because it's related to sex."

Butler-Dawson said people held huge events in her village to raise awareness.

"If you don't understand the grass roots, you're not going to get the big picture," she said. "I just don't think that we can give up. We really need to keep fighting. We have made a huge amount of progress, we can't pull out now, we've gone too far to pull out."

Even though living with HIV is better-managed than years before, Nguyen said the virus continues to carry a stigma.

"Iowa is still a small community and people have these ideas of what HIV/AIDS is," Nguyen said. "We want people to know this is what it is. This is what we know about it and this is how we can prevent it."


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