By Stephanye R. Clarke
World AIDS Day is observed December 1st as a way to remember the many lives lost to HIV/AIDS, to honor the ongoing fight of people living with HIV/AIDS and to renew our fight to end the spread of HIV.
I remember very clearly that my entrée into the public health field began while I worked at Alliance for Living, Inc., the only AIDS Service Organization in southeastern Connecticut. Here I had a front row seat in a way that no magazine, newspaper article or report on the news could provide. It was there, with the staff and members (clients), that I was able to put an everyday face to HIV/AIDS. It’s also where I decided I wanted to do whatever I could to end the spread of HIV, including becoming a Certified HIV Prevention Educator—easily one of my proudest accomplishments.
Last week I saw an infographic on Facebook (below) that said that nearly 1 in 4 Americans believe that HIV can be spread by sharing a drinking glass and that almost 1 in 5 believe by a toilet seat. That angered and saddened me at the same time. It is difficult to grasp how more than 30 years into the epidemic the same myths continue to be prevalent.
Tonight I’ll be speaking during a World AIDS Day event at Alliance for Living. Initially, the speech was supposed to be framed about health disparities in general, and then focusing on HIV/AIDS. That seems a bit played out though—many of us are aware that minority and underserved communities fare worse for health status and outcomes across the board for a variety of reasons.
I went to the Department of Public Health website to look at the numbers—there are recent figures about how many people were recently diagnosed as HIV+. For the first time, even as a self-proclaimed public health geek, looking at these numbers I wasn’t sure how to feel. I didn’t know what my action was supposed to be.
I began thinking about my experience working at Alliance for Living. I thought about what I’d learned and how being there daily for nearly two years sparked my interest in people’s health. I remembered the friendships I’d developed and that I didn’t work with and interact with numbers—I worked with and remain friends with people.
Ultimately, that’s why I do what I do. It’s why Alliance for Living and other AIDS Service Organizations do what they do. They do it for the people—for our grandparents, for mothers and fathers, for sisters and brothers, for our aunts and uncles, for our nieces and nephews, and our babies.
And so instead of throwing a bunch of numbers at you, I’d like to charge you with something—an action step of sorts: talk about HIV/AIDS within your spheres of influence—those spaces where you live, work, socialize, attend school, worship and even where you network socially.
I recently read something that said, “Perhaps the greatest risk of HIV is believing it’s not a problem anymore.” Outside of certain circles, HIV isn’t talked about as urgently as it once was—that is problematic, but it’s something we can change. Encourage those in your circles to practice safer sex, to be routinely tested, to get educated and keep the conversation going. Let’s talk about making sure that we’re compassionate—that we’re treating PLWHA with the same dignity and respect we expect.
Here’s how I plan to close my little speech this evening:
“I’ll close by saying two things: (1) this commitment I ask of you today is a small way for each of us do to our part to end the spread of HIV and (2) a quote by James Baldwin “Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.”