It’s been 30 years since the first case of HIV appeared in San Francisco and New York. Gay men in these cities were entering hospitals with rare forms of cancer and unusual infections, despite being young and in their 20s.
With so little known about the disease—what to call, where it came from, how it functioned—it was first characterized as a disease applicable only to homosexuals, hence the common term doctors used to describe it in its first years of existence: Gay related immune deficiency.
With observation, it became clear that the mysterious disease was capable of infecting any human being, hence the term we currently have, Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is now one of the most researched diseases. 33 million people are living with HIV, and 25 million have died from AIDS complications.
According to the state, over 1,000 Alaskans are living with HIV, and nearly 500 have died from AIDS since 1982.
“AIDS has changed me. AIDS has affected my by loosing friends, family, and many, many engineers and creative people. And that affects us all, and it’s amazing to see how that affects us all 30 years later,”said Scott Koeuller, an electrical engineer and Friday night host of Mad Myrna’s Drag Show, whose stage name is “Daphne”.
Dozens gathered last Thursday for a candelight vigil at Alaska Aids Assistance Association (4As). This was part of 4As observation of World Aids Day, a global day of HIV/AIDS awareness that has been acknowledged on December 1 in cites around the world since 1988.
During the vigil, over 200 hundred names were read of Alaskans who had died of AIDS. A majority of those who died of AIDS did not want to be publically acknowledged.
“Even after 30 years, not everyone has been able to live through the stigma of the disease,” said the Executive Director of 4As, Trevor Storres. “The actual numbers are three times that.”
Several UAA students were present, including Mindy Cason, a Human Services major who has interned for two semesters at 4As. Cason works in the needle exchange section of 4As.
“A big misconception is who we’re focusing on. The population we’re targeting is intravenous drug users,” Cason said.
The needle exchange provides clean needles for anyone, and disposes all used needles. Because 4As does not want to intimidate anyone, they do not ask what the needle is being used for.
“It’s about being safe with your choices, so I’m not going to ask someone to change their behavior in order to be healthy,” Cason said.
Other than Juneau, 4As offers the only needle exchange in the state, and people have driven as far as Homer for clean needles.
Some circles still have misconceptions about HIV transmission. Kollier said many still see it as an exclusively gay disease because that was how it was first introduced to the world.
“When I was in college 1981 to 1986, AIDS had just come out. No one knew what it was other than it was from the gay men in San Francisco, so it instantly received a negative spin from the news cycle,” Kollier said.
Some still do not know the basic facts about HIV. Storres recalls several people who have denied that HIV can lead to AIDS, or have not sought future treatment because of the possibility of being seen.
“Some people have said that Anchorage is like one giant village, so with people living with HIV in a town with two degrees of separation, the chances of knowing each other is very great. Many times they don’t want support groups because their status may be unveiled to people they don’t want to know.”
Acknowledging the stigma of the disease, the UN made this year’s theme for World Aid Days “Getting to Zero.” Their two biggest goals are zero new infections and zero discrimination.