C-U organizations to honor World AIDS Day, raise awareness

The last thing anyone wants to think about before getting intimate with another person is the possibility of contracting HIV/AIDS or another STD. However, the dangers are always out there and ignoring them can be deadly. That’s why on Saturday several organizations in the Champaign-Urbana community will honor World AIDS Day, an event intended to spread awareness and educate people about the facts on HIV.

After HIV awareness reached its height in the 1990s, many might feel like the risks have decreased with the hype. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, however, approximately 50,000 people in the United States are newly infected with the disease each year. Within that number for 2010’s estimate, 9,765 people were between 15 and 24 years old.

Sexual Health Peers, an RSO that provides peer education on sexual health, recognizes the importance of World AIDS Day as an opportunity to educate, especially for college students.

“The fact that it’s in this community and on this campus is something that most students don’t know about,” said Sara Salmon, senior in LAS and president of the organization. “There were infection rates that were skyrocketing (in the 80s and 90s), and we slowly brought them down. But now they’re staying, which means something’s not working anymore.”

The events honoring World AIDS Day are meant to fight against this plateau. The African Cultural Association and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. are hosting an open mic night called “Confessions” in honor of the global health day on Dec. 6. Sexual Health Peers and McKinley’s Special Populations’ Student Concerns Committee are also co-sponsoring the event. Starting at 7 p.m., the show will take place in FAR’s multipurpose rooms A and B and is free of charge.

During the event, people are encouraged to share their stories, poetry, songs or any other creative medium in discussion of how HIV has affected their lives. W.O.R.D., a spoken word performance group, will showcase HIV-related acts throughout the event. Sexual Health Peers and representatives from McKinley Health Center will also provide educational materials and share the facts about HIV throughout the show.

“I really think that stories resound with others,” Salmon said. “Having that openness, that welcoming feeling, to something that is really taboo and shut down it something that really works against the stigma that’s felt within the culture.”

McKinley’s Special Populations’ Student Concerns Committee will also provide additional materials to students across campus. Throughout the week leading up to World AIDS Day, the African American Cultural Center, La Casa and the Native American House will display a trifold board provided by McKinley. Each board features information on where to get tested, myths, signs of the disease, prevention methods and statistics specific to the hosting house’s culture.

On Dec. 5, the Student National Medical Association will also have a table set up in the Illini Union to display information about HIV and to answer students’ questions starting at 12 p.m.

“HIV and AIDS is a health issue that affects a wide range of people, and college students aren’t exempt from that,” said Natalie Bradford, a graduate assistant in the health education unit at McKinley. “Especially considering the sexual behavior that is typical of college students, we need to know our risks. So having a day like this where we can bring awareness about the issue is really important.”

It is recommended that student get tested for HIV and other STDs every year or after changing sexual partners, Bradford said. McKinley offers this kind of testing to all students, free of charge.

World AIDS Day is also meant to commemorate those who have died from HIV. The Greater Community AIDS Project (GCAP) is a local organization that educates community members and provides direct support to people infected with HIV and their loved ones. GCAP will be hosting a candlelight memorial and vigil at the West Side Park bandstand in Champaign from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.

The event will be held to remember those who have died from HIV-related illness and to honor all those living with the disease. Individuals attending this free event are encouraged to light a candle and share how HIV has affected their lives.

“Since it no longer grabs headlines like it once did, people need to be reminded that HIV still exists,” said Mike Benner, executive director of GCAP. “It is also important to have public acknowledgement that ... the impact of HIV is far reaching, touching all of us.”

World AIDS Day was established in 1988 as the first global health day in order to stop the spread of the disease and to emphasize raising awareness of HIV year-round. The fight against HIV starts with education.

“College students are the people that are going to help fix this problem,” Salmon said. “(A college campus has) a population of people that are all advocates. They’re going to be scientists, doctors, all these different people, and if they aren’t aware of the issues, then how can we start facing them?”

Sarah can be reached at soenke2@dailyillini.com.