On December 1, 2001, the 14th annual World AIDS Day will be observed around the world and in southern Colorado. World AIDS Day aims to increase awareness of HIV and AIDS both globally and in the United States. This year's World AIDS Day focuses on the importance of reaching youth with vital messages about the need to protect themselves from contracting HIV/AIDS.
A focus on youth is vital because an estimated 900,000 people in the United States are currently living with HIV or AIDS, and half of all new HIV infections are among young Americans under the age of 25. Every hour two more young Americans contract HIV. Why? Because too many of our young people are engaging in high-risk behaviors, such as unprotected sexual activity and sharing needles for drug injecting. Sixty-five percent of our youth are sexually active by the 12th grade, many of those with multiple partners.
As we reflect back at the first 20 years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, there have been many lessons learned.
At the beginning of this epidemic, people rationalized that if they were not a gay man, then they were not "at risk." We now know better. We are all susceptible to HIV. Next was the news that HIV was a blood-borne pathogen; only later we discovered that it was not. HIV is actually spread through blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk.
At this point, medical professionals knew what HIV was, how it was transmitted and how to prevent the infection. And I believed that with this information, we would soon see a dramatic decrease in new HIV infections. I am still waiting.
Early in the epidemic, some were quick to dismiss any link between the disease and behavior. However, once you know how to protect yourself, prevention is all about behavior and the choices you make. Knowledge is power and people unfortunately continue to abdicate their power and responsibility.
This is why empowering young people to use their influence with their families, friends and communities taps a powerful force in helping to stem the tide of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
I have actually heard several people say, in effect, "I thought the epidemic was over. We now have AZT and the drug cocktails." The reality is that a person who has contracted the virus, HIV, cannot be cured from the infection. In fact, HIV leads to AIDS, the severe, incurable disease of the immune system. HIV infections are on the rise across our nation, region and state.
If you think medications are the solution, then think again. Medications have increased longevity of life and dramatically improved the quality of life -- that is, however, if a person can afford the medications and tolerate the side effects, not to mention the potential toxicity of combination therapies over many years that can kill the person. It can be equated to being on chemotherapy for the rest of one's life.
I appeal to our youth and those who influence them to educate themselves on how to prevent HIV infection and to help others learn how to prevent the spread of this devastating illness. The Southern Colorado AIDS Project (S-CAP), a local health and human services organization serving individuals and families that are infected or affected with HIV/AIDS, stands ready to be of assistance.
Here, in southern Colorado, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment 1,782 people have been diagnosed and reported with HIV/AIDS between 1985 and June 2001. Of those, 399 have died.
As we observe World AIDS Day 2001, we all must join the fight against HIV and AIDS by working together to protect our young people, and the youth of our world, from the threat of HIV/AIDS. By promoting awareness and risk avoidance, we can reach thousands of youth that each day are faced life-changing decisions that can affect their health and the future of the world and southern Colorado.
Ron Eby is board president of the Southern Colorado AIDS Project, which provides services and support to more than 350 individuals living with HIV/AIDS in a 24-county region of southern Colorado. The group reaches 7,500 individuals, including students and heath professionals every year with its prevention programs. For more information on the S-CAP services and programs, call 800/241-5468 or visit www.s-cap.org.