AIDS awareness at MC

The fact that people diagnosed with HIV and AIDS are living longer is good news, but it’s also likely a reason people are talking about the disease less.

“People see it as treatable, so they don’t think about it as as big a deal,” said Joseph Hohman, community coordinator at Marietta College and organizer of the campus’s AIDS Awareness Week. “Even though people are living longer with HIV, it’s still something they should be concerned about.”

Coming on the heels of Sunday’s World AIDS Day, the week is intended to educate college students and the community about acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes it and how to prevent its spread. Activities kicked off Monday with free HIV testing for students, faculty and staff and continues with a discussion and movie screening today and display of sections of the AIDS Memorial Quilt Wednesday and Thursday. The events are also open to the public.

The quilt was started in 1987 as an effort by a group of people in San Francisco to memorialize people who died of AIDS and illustrate the human toll the disease took. Since then, it has grown to include more than 48,000 individual 3-by-6-foot memorial panels, most sewn together by friends, lovers and family members in honor of someone whose life was claimed by the disease.

Five sections will be on display in the college’s Andrews Hall Great Room from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday and 3 to 10 p.m. Thursday.

“For me, it was a very moving experience,” Hohman said of seeing the quilt before. It hearkens back to the feelings when the disease was first being discovered and “how scared people were, and they didn’t know what they were dying from,” he said.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV is transmitted by sexual intercourse and other contact with infected blood, certain bodily fluids, including blood transfusions, sharing of needles or syringes and possibly from mother to child during pregnancy, labor, delivery and breast feeding.

It cannot be transmitted by coughing or sneezing, insect bites, touching or hugging, water or food, kissing, public baths, work or school contact, telephones, swimming pools or sharing cups, glasses, plates and other utensils.

According to the CDC, abstinence is the safest way to prevent the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms are advised to be used when a person does have sex.

Most people know about sexual transmission and the safe sex practices to prevent it, said Michelle Cole, HIV intervention specialist with the Portsmouth City Health Department, which provides free testing in 22 Ohio counties, including Monday at the college.

“I just think that they don’t practice it,” she said.

More education is needed to drive home the importance of preventing the spread of the disease, Cole said, and that includes getting tested so that people are aware they can spread it. Sometimes people are reluctant to be tested, and that could come from fear born of misinformation, she said.

“Most people still associate HIV with the way it was in the ’80s,” she said.

But while there is still no cure for the disease, there are ways to treat it.

“HIV is definitely not a death sentence,” Cole said. “Because of the treatment available, an individual can live a healthy life with HIV.”

Hohman said he’d like to see the college offer free testing at least once a semester. Cole said she also provides it monthly at the Marietta City and Washington County health departments, and recommended people visit the website of the Rural AIDS Advisory Group, www.traag.org, to find free testing sites.

There is also still a stigma associated with the disease, she said, with many people associating the disease with homosexuality. While males who have sex with other men are the population most profoundly affected, accounting for 63 percent of new cases in 2010, and black Americans made up 44 percent of those cases, “HIV does not discriminate at all,” Cole said.

MC junior Lacey Caparanis, a psychology major from Youngstown, is president of the Alliance, a college group devoted to providing “a safe space for people who are coming out and where allies and members of the community can interact.” She said members of the group are excited about the quilt display and the week.

“It’s just important to realize, especially in this community, what a big problem AIDS is and dispel the myths,” she said.

The week will wrap up on Sunday, with students, faculty and staff invited to gather at Fenton Court at 8 p.m. wearing red for a photograph forming a “human red ribbon” in honor of AIDS awareness.

“It’s not more just giving them information; it’s letting them participate,” Hohman said.