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Seeing Red: Students and activists focus on AIDS awareness

BY REID CHANDLER | DECEMBER 05, 2013 5:00 AM

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Twenty years ago this month, Tami Haught was a newlywed 20-something to her husband, Roger. They felt lucky to be married in late-November, because three months prior, she had been told her wedding day would never come.

On August 23rd, 1993, just a day before her 25th birthday, she tested HIV-positive.

“Not the birthday gift anybody wants,” she said.

Her diagnosis came just 19 days after doctors told her husband he had AIDS. His T-cell count was a staggering 12, and he would not live to see her in her wedding gown, or to place a ring on her finger.

“Luckily that was the push that he needed, and we did get married,” she said.

Roger Haught battled the disease for almost three years after his initial diagnosis. He contracted HIV from a bad blood transfusion after being in a car accident, and Tami Haught received it through him. The most frightening part for the Haughts was not knowing until it was too late for Roger to receive adequate treatment, but Tami still had time.

“I didn’t know I needed to be tested, because I didn’t believe it would happen to somebody like me,” she said. “It wasn’t supposed to happen to me.”

The Haughts lived in Texas at the time, and finally, the stigma, shame, fear and discrimination wore Roger down to the point of giving up.

“[It] took his will and his spirit away, along with AIDS having ravished his body by that time,” she said. “He stopped taking his medications.”

Roger Haught died on Oct. 12th, 1996, just two months before their son, Adrian, was born. Even three years after his death, Tami Haught told those around her he had died of cancer. The stigma of HIV and AIDS at the time was too much to bear.

“If you have cancer, people care,” she said. “If you have AIDS, people judge.”

Tami Haught said the most common question she was asked after sharing she was HIV-positive was, “Well, what did you do?”

“We automatically assume that you’ve done something wrong in order to contract HIV, and that’s not the case,” she said.

The hardship Tami Haught faced in the wake of her husband’s death, along with her own fight against HIV, led to the activist role she now plays in the state of Iowa. The 45-year-old currently serves as the community organizer for the Community HIV/Hepatitis Advocates of Iowa Network, or CHAIN. She believes education can lead to compassion, which, in turn, could spark a greater effort for Iowans to get tested for HIV and protect themselves. 

“It takes one night, it takes one choice of not having protected sex,” she said. “You’re putting yourself at risk.”

Tami Haught’s story is just one of several being shared at the University of Iowa this Saturday. She will be participating in an HIV/AIDS panel sponsored by a collaboration of student organizations hosting IC Red Week, a week-long campaign to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS issues on campus and in the community.

“It’s a ‘think globally, act locally’ kind of thing,” said Steven Williams, president of ONE at the University of Iowa. ONE is a non-profit student organization focused on educating the community on U.S. foreign-affairs policies and international assistance to other countries. They co-founded IC Red Week in 2012 with the Global Health Club, another student organization focused on world health issues.

This year, ONE and Global Health Club expanded their arsenal of advocates with several other student organizations with stakes in HIV/AIDS awareness, including the new LGBT-focused Gamma Rho Lambda interest group, made up of about 20 active members seeking a permanent charter.

Other organizations such as Amnesty International, which focuses on human rights issues, including the right to healthcare, have also jumped on board.

The hope is, by having more student organizations involved, there will be a broader reach locally regarding HIV/AIDS awareness. While leaders in these groups admit HIV and AIDS may be issues that fly under the radar, often avoided as conversation topics, they believe a bigger push for awareness and discussion can break those barriers of silence.

“The more people who know about it and the more people it reaches, you have this effect that influences everybody,” said Jenny Hellfenberger, co-president of Global Health Club. “It’s not just an issue in Africa, it’s an issue world-wide. And I think bringing that to Iowa City is an important concept for us to have as a student body and a community.”

IC Red Week is comprised of various awareness efforts throughout the week, though starting Wednesday, the push moved in the direction of fundraising for different HIV/AIDS-related resource organizations. A fundraiser at Wich Which Wednesday benefitted the HIV/AIDS clinic at the UI, while a silent-auction and cocktail affair at the Old Brick in downtown Iowa City Thursday night will aid locals battling the disease through the Ryan White HIV and AIDS Foundation.

A Dance Marathon-esque event at the Currier multi-purpose room on Friday, called Rave Awareness, will hope to raise money for (RED), a global organization funding AIDS research. The week will be capped off with the panel on Saturday, followed by an event called the Mirage, equipped with drag shows, a “condom casino”, and an overall celebration of a week of hard work.

“[The week] is kind of a push to tell people, ‘We have accomplished a lot over the last 12 to 15 years, but we still have a lot to complete to end the spreading of HIV/AIDS’,” Williams said.

Along with the awareness and fundraising events, participants of IC Red Week have peppered the UI Pentacrest with red ribbons, symbolizing awareness for the diseases. Two panels encasing giant quilts, started in 1984 from the NAMES Foundation in Georgia, were delivered to the UI to be showcased in the Hubbard Commons of the Iowa Memorial Union. The quilts were made in honor of loved ones who have died from AIDS.

For both the students coordinating IC Red Week and state activists like Tami Haught, the hope is to change the culture of HIV/AIDS in Iowa. More than 2,300 people in the state have been diagnosed with HIV, and roughly half of those receive an AIDS diagnosis within a year of discovering their condition, according to Iowa Department of Public Health. This means, Tami Haught says, they are missing crucial early detection windows for preventative treatment. And without any treatment, Aids.gov says people diagnosed with AIDS will survive just three years. After contracting an opportunistic infection, such as influenza or pneumonia, life-expectancy plummets to one year.  
But this problem extends beyond the state borders.

“Those statistics aren’t unique to Iowa,” said Jack Stapleton, Director of the UI HIV/AIDS clinic. Stapleton agrees earlier and more frequent testing is crucial, and the Center for Disease Control recommends everyone be tested for HIV during their routine annual physical examination. Current CDC estimates suggest one in five people in the United States with HIV do not know they are infected.

That is why groups like CHAIN are advocating for a change to Iowa’s HIV criminalization law, which says if you cannot prove you disclosed your diagnosis to your partner, even if you do not transmit the disease, you can be sentenced to 25 years in prison and forever remain on the state sex offender registry.

“There’s a saying in the community, ‘Take the test, risk arrest’,” Tami Haught said. Iowa’s current law fosters an environment of avoiding being tested for fear of liability, she added.

Tami Haught believes if there is greater education on awareness of HIV/AIDS, perception will change in turn, and earlier detection and preventative treatment will significantly lower transmission rates.

“Twenty years ago I never imagined I would be here today,” she said. “I never expected to see my son graduate.”

But Tami Haught’s son will graduate next year, and she plans to stick around. She currently has an undetectable viral load, and a CD4 count of 1,400, both indicating very good health for her condition. A CD4 count below 200 qualifies for an AIDS diagnosis, and most people who are not immune-compromised have counts only hitting the 800-1,200 mark. Detecting her disease early and seeking instant treatment, she says, is why her health condition is so superb.  

And if organizations like ONE and Global Health Club can promote education for the next generation, Tami Haught believes their common goal can be met. Other Iowans, then, can be assured they will see their kids graduate one day, too.

“I’m looking down the road, hopefully many, many years down the road, to being a grandmother,” she said. “And that’s not something I ever imagined.”

Daily Iowan TV reporter Melissa Dawkins contributed to this story.


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