Since the beginning of the American epidemic in 1981, an estimated 658,507 Americans have died as a result of HIV/AIDS. Every year, nearly 50,000 new cases occur in the United States. Currently, an estimated 1.2 million people are living with HIV, although they may not know that they are infected. With a dormancy period that can last up to ten years, the CDC estimates that 12.8% of HIV infected individuals age 13 and older are unaware of their illness.
As of this April, it was reported by the CDC that Indiana has “one of the worst HIV outbreaks in recent years,” with 140 new cases after it was first noticed in December. However, members of the Indiana University Health team are looking to curb the number of Hoosiers that are infected every year, as well as to raise awareness of the illness.
On Saturday, September 26th, the 25th annual AIDS Walk will take place at Herron Morton Place Neighborhood.
Kyle Bonham, the chair for this year’s walk, explained that the idea for the walk “came out of a need to support HIV+ Hoosiers with emergency needs. These needs are supported by the Gregory R. Powers Direct Emergency Financial Assistance Fund, which pays for emergency food, transportation to medical appointments, life-saving medication, rent, and other miscellaneous expenses for these HIV+ Hoosiers.”
Bonham believes that this event and those like it help to bring awareness to communities about the disease.
“It promotes the ongoing needs of individuals living in Indiana with HIV,” Bonham said. While HIV may not be in the news as much as it once was and the risk of dying for HIV is significantly less than what it once was, it is still an issue we need to talk about. People are still contracting HIV, people are still getting sick from HIV, and people with HIV, a lifelong illness, still need support.”
While the walk does help to raise emotional support and awareness for Hoosiers currently living with HIV, it also raises awareness of the financial burden that many HIV positive individuals face when it comes to treatment.
Jeremy Turner, the Director of Supportive Services at the Damien Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing and treating HIV in Indianapolis, explains his take on the purpose of the walk.
“The AIDS Walk serves a dual purpose. Walking is a public representation of the battles fought by individuals impacted by HIV early in the epidemic and a way to memorialize those who lost the fight while celebrating people still with us today,” Turner said. “This virus not only has a serious physical impact but a financial one as well. Treatment has come a long way but has a high dollar price tag attached. The cost of medical care and prescriptions can be crippling, and the money raised for the walk helps people afford the care they need.”
Bringing attention to the illness itself along with the high cost of treatment are not the only goals of the walk, however. While the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS seems to have lessened over the past couple of decades, it still exists and is prevalent in some communities.
“Stigma is just as present today as it was thirty years ago,” Bonham said.
“This stigma stems from a lack of comprehensive education and awareness about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. The stigma also likely stems from the fact that many individuals acquire HIV from sexual contact. Sexually-related subjects in our society tend to be more taboo to discuss publically, so the stigma remains. Stigma is one of the biggest barriers that prevents individuals from getting tested, getting into HIV care, and staying engaged in HIV care.”
While Turner believes the general public is more informed, he agrees that more change has to take place.
“From my own experience as an HIV educator over the last decade, the general public has more information about HIV at a younger age than in years passed. I believe most everyone is aware, at this point, that HIV is not transmitted through casual contact, that HIV is not a death sentence and that gay men are not the only ones impacted by the virus,” Turner said. “With that being said, we still have a long way to go. Also, as the stigma around HIV changes and treatment options improve, it's important to realize HIV is a serious chronic illness not to be taken lightly.”
The Indiana AIDS Walk hopes to enhance public knowledge of the illness, as well as promote the idea of getting tested and knowing your status.
As a representative of the Damien Center, Turner recommends being aware of your habits and taking precautions to ensure that you are not living with the illness without being aware.
“I think the best indicator of warning signs are based on a person’s behaviors and not so much physical symptoms, especially early in the infection,” Turner said. “People who are sexually active, having multiple sex partners without using condoms, or individuals who use injection drugs are at much higher risk for infection than those who don't. Everyone should be tested for HIV and know their status. If you participate in behaviors that put you at risk, regular testing at six-month intervals would be recommended.”
Participants in the walk will have the opportunity to get information regarding how and where to go to get tested.
While the disease has changed significantly over the past decades, HIV is still a prevalent issue affecting communities all over the world. As Bonham points out, “We must continue to talk about HIV and recognize that it is still around. It was not a virus that disappeared after the 1980s and 1990s, when more people became very sick and often died from the virus.”
“HIV has no preference when it comes to infecting individuals,” Bonham continued. “All individuals can contract HIV—individuals from all races, religions, genders, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientations are at risk.”
HIV is not an illness that affects only the individual. For family and friends, as well as the community as a whole, raising awareness of HIV and supporting those who are infected makes a giant impact. Research for and public knowledge of AIDS has come a long way since 1981, but there is still a long way to go. This is why it is so important that members of our community go out to take a stand against AIDS.
For more information on the Indiana AIDS Walk, visit: http://www.kintera.org/faf/home/default.asp?ievent=1123779
For Damian Center Services, visit:
To register for a team at the Indiana AIDS Walk, visit www.indianaAIDSwalk.org