World AIDS Day was observed Thursday at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff with an educational program designed to make young people aware of the dangers of HIV/AIDS and the best ways to avoid infection.
Held in the auditorium of the Hathaway-Howard Fine Arts Center, the program, “Getting to Zero,” featured a panel of guest speakers who emphasized the importance of getting to a world where there are zero new HIV infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and zero discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS.
UAPB alumnus Louis Henry is program coordinator for the Capacity Building Assistance Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
“I am going to give you guys a brief version of the issues related to the human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, otherwise known as HIV and AIDS,” Henry said. “The history of World AIDS Day goes back to 1988 when the World Health Organization decided that it was important to have a world awareness day about the issue. Over the years, many of us have worked to reduce the stigma around HIV/AIDS. The theme ‘Getting to Zero’ was devised with the goal of getting there by 2015, but I hope it is sooner.”
Henry asked rhetorically why getting to zero new HIV infections is important.
“It is important because we are dealing with a disease that is preventable,” Henry said. “There is no reason for infections from HIV or any sexually transmitted disease because they are all preventable.”
Henry emphasized that HIV infection rates for black men and women between the ages of 13 and 24 continue to increase.
“This group is three times more likely to be infected with HIV than Hispanics,” Henry said. “They are eight times more likely to be infected than a white person and African-Americans make up only 13 percent of the nation’s population. There is something wrong with that number.”
Henry said that 280 new cases of HIV infection occurred in Arkansas during 2011 and that 54 percent of them were black people.
“African-American and Latino women between the ages of 20 and 29 made up 53 percent of those numbers and African-American and Latino men between the ages of 20 and 29 made up 36 percent of those numbers,” Henry said. “People continue to be infected with a preventable disease and there is something very wrong with that.
“We shouldn’t have people dying with HIV-related illnesses due to a lack of access to treatment and medication,” Henry said. “Why is it that despite all of the tax money in the United States, we have eight or nine states that have people on a waiting list for access to a program that allows them to receive affordable AIDS medication? Thank goodness Arkansas is not one of those states. Why do we still have people waiting for medicine? That is wrong.”
Henry said that the stigma surrounding HIV and homosexuality in the black community has greatly set back educational efforts within the community.
“The stigma around HIV has caused a lot of people to become infected or to not receive the treatment they need in the African-American community,” Henry said.
“Getting to zero is going to take some work,” Henry said. “It’s a good thing we have at least some of the seats here in the auditorium filled today. Even though there are a lot of empty seats, we have come a long way from the days when we were lucky to have three people at an event like this. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”
Henry said that the same commitment that powered the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s needs to be employed to end the transmission of HIV in the black community.
“We didn’t fight for an end to racial discrimination only to have AIDS come and take us out,” Henry said.
AIDS survivor talks
Kari Farmer-Coffman is a woman living with HIV/AIDS near Fort Smith with her young daughter and used her time at the speaker’s lectern to share her life story with the audience.
“I guess you could say that I had the perfect life,” Farmer-Coffman said. “I had two parents who were married, a husband and a little girl. But one day my husband told me he was attracted to other men and not to me, so we split up. But that’s not the shocker. After my husband left, I was lonely and met a guy and we had unprotected sex. The date was September 10, 2010. One month later on October 10, 2010, I was dying in the hospital. The doctors didn’t think I would live, but I pulled through. It turns out I had been infected with HIV by that guy I had unprotected sex with. Within two months of meeting this guy, I was HIV positive.”
The presence of junior high and high school students from the Dollarway and Pine Bluff school districts energized Farmer-Coffman.
“I am so honored to be here in front of you today,” Farmer-Coffman said. “Many school districts won’t let me come and talk about AIDS, so I am very thankful that I have that opportunity with you today. I want you all to remember that just one time without condoms, with dirty needles or with someone who doesn’t tell the truth can result in becoming infected with HIV. I know because it happened to me.”
Farmer-Coffman told the audience that if they become infected with HIV as the result of a bad decision, the consequences will not only be suffered by them but also by their loved ones.
Carol Jackson with Jefferson Comprehensive Care Center presented facts about HIV/AIDS.
“You cannot contract HIV/AIDS through touch, tears, sweat or saliva,” Jackson said.
Jackson said that HIV/AIDS can only be transmitted through blood, reproductive fluids and mother’s breast milk.
In honor of those who have passed away from AIDS-related illnesses, UAPB students and faculty and public school students from Dollarway and Pine Bluff made their way down L. A. “Prexy” Davis Drive to the HPER Center, where they released the red balloons into the sky.