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World AIDS day set for Monday

Jane Stebbins

FRISCO – The local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians) will hold a candlelight vigil Monday to remind people of the stigma and discrimination facing those with AIDS.

Monday is World AIDS Day. AIDS is an acronym for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, a disease that compromises the immune system, allowing opportunistic viruses or bacteria to attack the body. The disease is fatal.

This year, worldwide events will focus on the impact of stigmatism and discrimination against HIV and AIDS patients. HIV – human immuno-deficiency virus – is the virus that causes AIDS.

In addition to the vigil, slated for 5:30 p.m. at the gazebo in Frisco’s town park, the Summit County Nursing Center at the County Commons near Frisco will offer free HIV tests and counseling from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday.

“Stigma is a powerful social label that radically changes how people view you and how you view yourself,” said PFLAG president Frank Accosta.

“With HIV and AIDS, because the virus is “acquired,’ you’re judged as a social deviant. If you’re already a member of a stigmatized or marginalized minority, such as gay men or Africans, the effect of the stigmatism is heightened.”

More than 8,000 people a day die from AIDS worldwide. As of last year, there were 13.2 million AIDS orphans, 5.3 million newly infected people with HIV and 42 million people living with HIV or AIDS.

According to the UK-based National AIDS Trust, responding to HIV and AIDS with blame or abuse toward people living with the disease simply forces the epidemic underground, creating the ideal conditions for HIV to spread.

“Keeping this in mind, people are not likely to be tested for HIV, and the disease is spread, thus undermining education and prevention efforts,” Accosta said.

“If the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV and AIDS can be eradicated, eventually so can this disease because the judgment, the fear and the hatred will dissipate and it will be safe for people to come forward.”

Even in Summit County, those stigmas exist.

“Think about it – television news tells you to go and get a flu shot and most people do. It’s a preventative measure that keeps you from getting sick and from infecting others,” Accosta said.

“No judgment, no stigma, just do it. If the news tells you to go and get an HIV test, most people won’t,” he said.

“Nobody wants to find out they have an incurable disease, that people will think less of them, that they might lose their friends, their job or housing, or have their safety threatened. And that’s what’s wrong. And thus, the virus is spread.”

In affluent industrialized countries such as the U.S., people have become complacent about HIV prevention. Advances in life-prolonging drugs have reduced the number of deaths and increased the number of people living with HIV, which also can increase the risk of exposure.

“It’s important for people to remember that AIDS is incurable,” said Michelle Wilson, a Summit County public health nurse and Western Colorado AIDS Project board member.

“There are medications that can extend life, but the drugs are costly, toxic, difficult to take and can have irreversible side effects. And the longer someone waits to be tested, the harder it is to treat.”

In Summit County, people from all backgrounds have tested positive for HIV and some have been treated for AIDS. The number of HIV infections are rising at an alarming rate among women through unprotected heterosexual sex, Wilson said.

Eliminating the stigma surrounding the disease is the first step in helping people who suffer from it, said Shanna Koenig, HIV and AIDS educator for the Mountain Mentors.

“When working with youth, awareness increases prevention,” she said, adding that Summit County has the second-highest HIV incident rate per capita in Colorado.

The Front Range ranks first.

“HIV and AIDS information cannot just be taught in the classroom. When it’s reality in the community, youth are affected. This is information that needs to be made real to our youth,” Koenig said.

For more information, contact Koenig at (970) 668-4154 or call the Western Colorado AIDS Project at (800) 765-8594.

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or

jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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