Spreading the AIDS prevention message

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National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day events reveal a lack of disease education.

Val Smith was surprised at the misconceptions held by students about AIDS when she went to an area high school recently.

Smith, a case manager for University of Minnesota Youth and AIDS Projects, asked the students if anyone knew the first drug prescribed to HIV patients.

Heroin, responded one student.

A few weeks later, Smith was telling the story at a different high school. Before she got to the end of the story, the same thing happened: One of the students said heroin was a drug for HIV patients.

“What’s happening?” she said. “What are they learning?”

Smith spoke about her experiences at a panel discussion for National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Thursday, sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Health and the University’s Minnesota Emergency Readiness Education and Training program.

Awareness events in Minnesota continued throughout the day, themed “Prevention is Power.”

Minnesota’s rate of AIDS cases in African Americans is nearly 11 times greater than that of whites, according to the department of health.

“We are in a state of emergency right now,” Smith said.

She told a story of a 28-year-old black man she’s known for more than 10 years who has AIDS. The man’s sister called Smith recently, concerned because her brother wasn’t taking his medication and continued to involve himself in high-risk behaviors, like taking drugs and being promiscuous.

“Unfortunately, his situation is not a unique one,” Smith said. “But, it isn’t a hopeless situation.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, African American and African-born people represent 4 percent of the total Minnesota population, but account for one-third of reported cases of AIDS in the state.

Smith said that in the 10 years she’s worked for Youth and AIDS Projects the numbers have gotten worse for the black community.

When she started, Smith said her caseload of HIV-positive young people consisted of two white women and the rest were white homosexual men.

“Now, I have 25 on my caseload,” she said. “Half are women, five are mothers and three are pregnant.”

Shelia Mills, co-founder of Bridge Builders 4 Life, brought a unique perspective to the discussion, being HIV-positive herself. Mills said she was disappointed awareness and support for AIDS in the black community was low.

“There should be no standing-room in here,” Mills said, referring to the half-full room in which the discussion was held. “There should be people sitting on the floor.”

Earnest Simpkins, a 21-year-old biology senior at Macalester College who attended the event, said the social stigma surrounding AIDS is what keeps people from talking about it and raising awareness.

“HIV/AIDS is demonized and so no one talks about it. Education gives us access to get change on a national level,” Simpkins said.

Mills is one who’s willing to talk.

“My purpose is being out here. I have no shame,” she said. “HIV can never define who I am.”

HIV is the third-leading cause of death among African American women and fourth among African American men ages 25 to 44, according to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our silence is killing us,” Smith said.

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