AIDS awareness has been the focus of this past month, with two testing events and a panel on the effects of HIV/AIDS on families.
On the beautifully sunny Monday, March 12th, Tapestry Health came to Mt. Holyoke college for another HIV/AIDS and STI (gonorrhea and chlamydia) pee testing. The testing events are a great way to reach out to the five college campuses. First, the occasion brings Tapestry Health to campus in a very visible way, allowing us to raise awareness about the services Tapestry provides. Second, it provides a fun and exciting outreach event for students to become involved in Tapestry’s volunteer program. Third, Tapestry’s current HIV programs are centered on both decreasing stigma and infection prevention through testing. Making sure a high-prevalence demographic such as young adults know their status is essential in the project.
The panel was a highly emotionally and intellectually charged introduction into the harsh reality of HIV/AIDS. The moderator Pam Matheson, Mt. Holyoke Associate Director of Pre-Health Advising, started off the evening with her experience as a CDC HIV researcher smack dab in the thick of the start of the AIDS epidemic in New York. When this idealistic young statistician was confronted by gay male protestors who stormed her CDC office, she was told that “Whoever is not with us is against us.” Pam pointed out that this is still true today in the US, with race, class, and gender divisions keeping those most affected by the virus from uniting.
Next, David Buchanan, Director of the Division of Community Health Studies and Director of the Institute for Global Health at UMASS, connected the divisions in Russia to the exponential increase in infections, especially among women. Russia exhibits an unusual increase in HIV for educated, literate women. This stems partly from a decrease in educational programs, and a stigma against contraception such as condoms due the countries unbelievably low birth rates. In fact, President Putin has declined international AIDS funding in an effort to change the perception of Russia from a beneficiary to a donor of monetary aid. This will decrease the already tight funding for AIDs education and condom programs, not to mention ARVs (antiretroviral drugs
to suppress the HIV virus) and drugs to prevent maternal-fetal transmission. Also, the incredible stigma against HIV prevents many people from getting tested, or from HIV-positive people from picking up ARVs from the health centers.
Third, Robert Reardon from Tapestry Health talked about Tapestry Health’s role on HIV testing in Western Mass. Unfortunately, since their work with HIV is funded by the federal government, Tapestry is limited to federally condoned HIV programs. In fact, most preventative programs have been cut, leaving such initiatives such as education and condom distribution without funding. Basically, Tapestry and most other HIV programs are confined to highlighting the importance of “knowing your status” through testing.
Finally, the gregarious Mt. Holyoke Professor Alberto Sandoval-Sánchez shared his story of his long-term battle with HIV/AIDS and the experiences of others he has met along the way. He highlighted the stigma and lack of unity, especially affecting the Latino populations, and called for a uniting movement to address the needs of all high-risk populations.
On St. Patrick’s day, March 17th, there was another HIV testing event in downtown Amherst as well.