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On World AIDS Day 2010, ignorance still high, numbers still rising

December 6th, 2010 Posted in Arts and Life

By Satenik Sargsyan

LOGAN—Forget sophisticated discussions of the dark ages and the limited human ability to find an effective cure for malaria. The world is now facing an epidemic which costs two million people their lives every year: HIV/AIDS.

Utah State University students came together on Dec. 1 to honor World AIDS Awareness Day at the Taggart Student Center Ballroom. While information booths represented different backgrounds, everyone seemed to recognize a disheartening fact: despite the universal fight, the numbers in AIDS epidemic are rising.

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AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is an advanced stage of human immunodeficiency virus. HIV is a retrovirus that attacks the cells of the human immune system causing deterioration of the immune system and resulting in fatal infections. Preventative medication can prevent the virus from developing into AIDS.

“My aunt is HIV-positive,” said a member of a panel discussed the AIDS threat, Ernest Cooper. “Her former partner of many years is still an out-in-the-world kind of person and has sexual intercourse with other people. He has lost about 100 pounds and looks sick but refuses to get tested.”

Unfortunately, this case isn’t uncommon. Initially stigmatized as the gay men’s disease, AIDS has carried numerous stereotypes along the way, such as “it’s only transmitted through anal sex” or “through sharing illegal drug injections.” Lack of education forces people refuse testing or hide their diagnoses, which spreads the disease further. Utah isn’t an exception.

“One of the reasons why HIV is spreading this fast is because many people, even in the most infected areas, are either misinformed or uninformed about HIV,” said Joyce Mumbah, a sociology PhD student who is conducting research on women and AIDS in Cameroon.

Mumbah said she had seen the same trend in Cache Valley. During her internship at Center for Pregnancy Choices in Logan she was surprised to see that high schools were hesitant about inviting professionals to speak about safe sexual behavior.

“It’s not that we were going to promote promiscuity, but rather educate the students about safe sex if they choose to have an intercourse,” Mumbah said.

While Utah isn’t amongst the most infected regions in the United States, the Utah Health Department shows about 2,500 documented cases of AIDS and estimated 1,000 cases of people who tested HIV-positive. Whites comprise 77 percent of the infected population in Utah.

Cooper, a Texas native and former member of the LDS church, said that sex education is harder to achieve in areas with strong religious beliefs and traditions. People choose not to talk about sex, and condoms are generally discouraged, as they hinder procreation.

“People on this campus think that AIDS isn’t a problem here,” Cooper said. “I was standing outside with a condom balloon, and one of the kids asked me what it was for. When I told him it was World AIDS Awareness Day he kind of smirked at me and said: ‘Dude, it’s not a problem here. It’s somewhere in Africa.’”

But Utah statistics show that although AIDS cases in Utah have decreased since 2000 (77 in 2009 compared to 138 in 2000), the incidence of HIV has nearly tripled over 10 years (112 in 2008 compared to 37 in 2000).

“The current medications can now slow down the process and prevent people who tested HIV-positive from getting full-blown AIDS,” said Freddy Novoa, president of the campus student Planned Parenthood organization. “The problem is that most people choose not to get tested in first place.”

That kind of denial can be fatal, experts say.

“My aunt is doing great now,” Cooper said. “She is on medication and takes good care of herself. She knows that her family supports her. And that helps her keep going.”

But Cooper said that, unlike his aunt, his HIV-positive friend at USU doesn’t talk to anyone about his disease except for a few people who have AIDS themselves.

“It’s just not OK in this community to talk about AIDS,” he said. “You are supposed to be happy. It’s almost as if everyone thinks it’s over, and your worth goes down.”

Cooper drew an analogy between an HIV-positive person and a cancer patient.

“You wouldn’t tell this to someone who has cancer,” he said. “You would tell them that they are a conquering person and would encourage them to be stronger.

“But because AIDS has such a stigma, they [HIV-positive] are less than or worse than others.”

With its conservative predisposition and misconceptions, Utah fits right into the bigger worldwide picture about AIDS prevention. In Africa, cultural beliefs and superstitions defined attitudes toward condoms when they were introduced in the continent.

“Condoms aren’t culturally acceptable in Africa; they are foreign,” Mumbah said. “There is a myth that condoms are white men’s way of discouraging sex.”

Superstition and other cultural practices that allow men to have multiple sexual partners, while women are expected to be submissive place sub-Saharan Africa in the unflattering first place amongst the world’s highest infected regions, Mumbah said.

“There are 33.3 million HIV-infected people in the world, according to the United Nation’s estimates,” she said, “and 67 percent of all HIV-infected people live in sub-Saharan Africa”

Both Cooper and Mumbah agreed that education is the key to solving the crisis. While the numbers in the West are much smaller, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control still reports more than a million documented cases of HIV in the United States.

“HIV is a human rights issue,” Mumbah said. “The long-term solution for HIV will only succeed if people lead themselves out of poverty, as well as putting up social structure and legal framework to protect people.”

In South Africa, where the AIDS epidemic is on an increase, the average male life expectancy is 44 years, mostly due to AIDS. This causes the labor force to shrink, leading to more poverty.

Cooper said that he is grateful to have the means to education. However, he understands that it is lack of education that drives people to adopt prejudiced stances against those who are HIV-positive.

Cooper witnessed his aunt go through “stand-offish behavior” from the extended family. They just didn’t understand. It was hard for Cooper himself.

“I had heard of people and seen movies about AIDS, but everything was so different” when the disease hit his own family, Cooper said. “It was real; it was right there.”

“Luckily, my aunt met the most amazing man, who married her and loves her dearly. He is not HIV-positive.”

While some people view the disease as the end, Cooper says his aunt saw the illness as a chance to make the most of her life.

“She cooks dinners and throws parties like nobody’s business,” he said. “We drink, we dance, we party and just have a good time. We know that it’s there, and it’s not going anywhere. But that doesn’t mean that her life is over.”

His aunt’s story has taught Cooper to be more cautious. He gets tested regularly and educates himself and others about possible ways of contracting AIDS.

“AIDS is transmitted through bodily fluids—blood, semen—and can’t be contracted through day-to-day communication,” Cooper said. “You won’t get AIDS through hugging someone, sharing family time with them or simply loving them.”

“More than anything else in their lives, they need you to let them know that they can be normal, and they can have a normal life,” he said.

Cooper’s friend is still studying at USU. He goes to school every day in utter silence and hopes for a better tomorrow.


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