AIDS day events offer Oakland sobering reminders
on December 1, 2008
by CLARE MAJOR, MAGGIE FAZELI FARD, and SAMSON REINY
Dec. 1 — It was still dark when Josh and Jessica woke up this morning, and there was a damp chill in the air. By 7 a.m., the couple stood outside the MacArthur BART station, each holding a sign printed with an AIDS statistic. Morning commuters streamed past them. “Who makes eye contact — that’s when you go for the card,” said Josh, informational postcards in hand. “Even if they just read the card on the BART, at least they’ve thought about it.”
Josh and Jessica, who declined to give their last names, joined dozens of other San Francisco AIDS Foundation volunteers holding signs outside BART stations across the Bay Area today to mark World AIDS Day. When the first World AIDS Day was held in 1988, the challenge advocates faced was just getting people to talk about it. Today, as Josh said, the challenge is getting people to think about it.
“AIDS struck the Bay Area and the world when people didn’t know what it was,” said Debra Holtz, a spokesperson for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “Today, people think it’s cured or gone away.”
For the record, it’s still here.
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome occurs at the most advanced stages of HIV infection. Transmitted by blood and other bodily fluids through unprotected sex, sharing needles, and blood transfusions, HIV/AIDS severely weakens the immune system, making the body vulnerable to infection, cancer and — at the risk of sounding like an alarmist 1990s after-school special — death.
The thing is, said Holtz, there was a time before anti-retrovirals, the drugs treating HIV patients with increasing success today. There was a time when AIDS was viewed as a plague. There was a time when the prospect of death wasn’t considered alarmist; it was a guarantee.
Today, Holtz said, anti-retroviral drugs are making it possible to live with HIV, adding years onto lives when two decades ago the prognosis would have given patients maybe six months to live. In many ways, it’s a dream come true. But when people think they can live the dream, said Holtz, they become “somewhat complacent.”
This past August, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that the United States has been under-estimating annual HIV infections by more than 40 percent for the past decade, meaning that there are more than 56,300 new infections — not the previously estimated 40,000 — every year.
It is estimated that nearly 450,000 Americans are currently living with AIDS and that more than 560,000 have died of AIDS since the onset of the epidemic.
Worldwide, the statistics are more dire: According to UNAIDS, more than 33 million people are believed to be currently living with AIDS. In 2007, 2.7 million people were newly infected, more than replacing the 2 million who died from AIDS. Of the more than 9 million people in developing nations who need drugs, only 3 million are actually receiving them.
In the midst of all this, Alameda County is no exception. In fact, according to Get Screened Oakland, the county has been “in a state of emergency” since 1998 and there is no sign of that designation being lifted anytime soon.
Since the early 1980s, approximately 7,000 cases of AIDS have been reported in Alameda County, said Adriann McCall of Get Screened Oakland. The Alameda County AIDS case rate is 25 percent higher than that for the state of California overall, and Oakland has more than seven times the rate of infection when compared to other cities in the county.
“It’s not an epidemic anymore,” said Holtz. “The numbers are staying the same. But that’s not acceptable… Twenty percent of HIV-positive people don’t even know their status. We’re nowhere near defeating this.”
Still, the fight is closer than it was 20 years ago, advocates stressed, and if today’s volunteer efforts and events are any indication, people still see the hope of victory.
San Francisco AIDS Foundation volunteers held signs and passed out postcards during rush hour at 10 transit stations across the region. Scheduled to pass out cards to commuters from 7 to 9 a.m., the five Berkeley volunteers ran out at 8 a.m. and spent their second hour at the BART station holding up signs and smiling at passersby.
Mayor Ron Dellums’ office spent the day preparing for an awards ceremony and reception celebrating what the city called “a record-breaking year in Alameda County for HIV testing.”
And at noon, the Oakland Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women commemorated the fifth anniversary of the “Sistahs Getting Real About HIV/AIDS” campaign with a press conference and free HIV testing.
“We can no longer just play it safe,” said Barbara Williams, president of the coalition. “We have to make it safe.”
The event stressed the high risk posed to African American women. In Alameda County, according to Get Screened Oakland, African Americans comprise almost fifty percent of new HIV cases. Additionally, women make up close to one-third of new HIV patients in Alameda County, according to the SFAF.
“Our community is at risk,” said Gloria Lockett, executive director of Cal-PEP, which co-sponsored the day’s events and offers HIV testing year-round. According to Lockett, a disproportionate number of African Americans are homeless, imprisoned, or in other high-risk situations. But Lockett said, the wider community is at risk as well. “Many working class African Americans don’t think they have HIV,” she said. “They think that because they’re not street people, they don’t have it… [But] AIDS does not discriminate.”
The “Sistahs Getting Real” event encouraged everyone to take their health into their own hands and get tested. Lockett reported that this morning, 15 people in East Oakland were tested for HIV and two of them came up positive.
“If people know their status,” Lockett said, “they won’t spread it.”
For more information, visit San Francisco AIDS Foundation at www.sfaf.org, National Coalition of 100 Black Women at www.ncbw.org, Get Screened Oakland at www.getscreenedoakland.org, Women Organized to Respond to Life-Threatening Disease at www.womenhiv.org, and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS at www.unaids.org.
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