Not just 'everywhere but here': Amherst College community dedicates a week to HIV/AIDS education & awareness
Dr. Charles Morrison will never forget the June 1981 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announcement that five men in Los Angeles had been inexplicably diagnosed with a rare lung disease called Pneumocystis pneumonia. This news is considered the first public acknowledgment in America of HIV/AIDS, a global pandemic that affects 33.4 million people worldwide. He may not have realized in that moment how profoundly this news would shape his future, but just one year later, Dr. Morrison began his research on the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS. He now works as the senior director for clinical sciences at Family Health International in Durham, North Carolina, and spoke on the current state of HIV/AIDS in 2010 as part of Amherst College’s AIDS Awareness Week.
Unlike Dr. Morrison, the student groups who organized AIDS Awareness Week have never known a world without HIV/AIDS. According to Lili Ferguson ’11, the partnership between the Amherst Public Health Collaborative, GlobeMed, and the Student Health Collaborative was a group of “innovative and passionate people” coming together to demonstrate that AIDS “isn’t just everywhere but here.” The week’s educational events illuminated the complexity, urgency, and history of the pandemic while raising funds for Partners in Health in Rwanda, the first PIH project in Africa working to increase the quality of HIV care in rural Rwanda. In total, the Amherst community raised nearly $800 for PIH.
AIDS Awareness Week brought students, staff, and faculty together with community members and experts to actively engage in the toughest issues facing HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment today. The campus was transformed with visual representations of infection rates in sub-Saharan Africa in the largest lecture halls. Robert Reardon, outreach director of Tapestry Health, visited with the Health Testing Vehicle. Reardon stressed the importance of “talk[ing] more openly about HIV testing within our personal social networks.” Students purchased votes to elect their favorite coach, staff member, or professor to dye their hair (temporarily) red as part of the PIH fundraising efforts. Oscar Lanza-Galindo, assistant director of student leadership at the Center for Community Engagement the winner of the hair dye election, was happy to participate in the contest because he believes that “access to HIV/AIDS medicine is a basic human right.” Dr. Morrison’s keynote address was delivered as part of a dinner, dessert, and dancing event on World AIDS Day- Wednesday, December 1.
The global AIDS pandemic is as complex as it is widespread, and, as Jamie Cohen ’11 noted in her introduction to Dr. Morrison’s talk, is much more than a public health crisis: “HIV/AIDS threatens the very fabric of our political, economic, and social stability.” Dr. Morrison began by explaining that treatment alone for HIV/AIDS is not enough: “We can’t treat our way out of the epidemic…there are more new infections than we can put on treatment.” Although there are some promising numbers- according to the 2010 UNAIDS Report, the number of new HIV infections has dropped by 19% in the last ten years- there were still 2.6 million new infections this year alone, and 70% of these cases were in sub-Saharan Africa.
Although prevention is the key strategy for HIV/AIDS reduction, Dr. Morrison explained, there is not one single prevention strategy, or intervention, that works across all populations- interventions are often used together for the most effective transmission prevention. The medical community considers an intervention is successful if it can be “acceptable outside of a clinic trial setting, if it can be implemented on a large scale, and if it will have a large public health impact.” One key criterion of a successful intervention is adherence- how many people will actually follow the suggested behavior or take the prophylactic consistently? Another serious consideration is that reaching the most vulnerable populations, such as injection drug users and sex workers, requires “political will”- in some countries, these groups are 30% of the infected population, but only receive 1% of the budget for treatment.
What is Dr. Morrison’s advice to future activists, doctors, and educators on HIV/AIDS? “Educate yourself as well as possible in the region that you are working. Talk to people that are living with HIV and find out what their concerns are. Finally, get the training (clinical, public health, or social) in the area that you want to work.” While certainly an enormous task, Amherst students like Lili Ferguson- who has already decided to focus on HIV/AIDS biomedicine in diverse communities- are working towards a world without this pandemic.
Jenny Morgan is a staff writer for the CCE. She enjoys used books, falafel sandwiches, and making mixed CDs for her friends. She welcomes any comments at jmorgan[at]amherst[dot]edu.