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Dayton--On December 1 every year, the world comes together to commemorate World AIDS Day. The 2007 theme is “Leadership,” with the hope that at every level—local citizens, community-based organizations, government bodies and globally—leadership will demonstrate continuing perseverance in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
AIDS Resource Center Ohio will be among thousands of groups to mark the event with activities and re-state its commitment to the cause.
“Since the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, leadership has helped us face astonishing obstacles,” says ARC Ohio executive director Bill Hardy.
Now in his fifteenth year with the center, Hardy has seen significant changes in the efforts and the leadership that has been essential to the cause over the years.
“In the early days of the HIV epidemic, we were struggling to gain understanding and bring compassionate responses in the midst of profound confusion, fear and even hysteria. People were wondering, ‘Can I become infected from a drinking fountain? Through a mosquito? From touching someone?’ It was in this context that volunteers in communities just like this one came together in kitchens and living rooms to form grassroots groups that became today’s AIDS service organizations.”
Today, Hardy cites different, but no less daunting, challenges. More than 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV. And, in spite of all we know, the spread of HIV is quickening. Last year, 4.3 million individuals were newly infected, more than in any previous year. In the U.S., 1.1 million are living with HIV, 40,000 a year become infected, and another 280,000 or more are unaware they carry the virus.
“While there’s still no cure, we’ve made remarkable advances in treating HIV, especially in the U.S. At the same time, the number of persons living with HIV—and needing supportive services right here in our community—is at an all time high and continues to increase,” says Hardy.
Current treatment has increased the life expectancy for HIV-infected individuals from months in the early days of the epidemic to more than two decades, but the financial and other costs are still staggering. ARC Ohio estimates medically-related expenses to treat the 2,700 individuals currently identified in the region to be between $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion dollars. Of this, more than 70 percent is for antiretroviral drugs.
But individuals in some communities face additional barriers. HIV-positive people living outside Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati have access to fewer government-funded programs.
This inequity makes life even more challenging for persons with HIV/AIDS in mid-sized cities and more rural counties.
Hardy attributes the disparity to the way government funds are allocated, and the relatively slow responses of some regions to the needs of persons living with AIDS a decade or more ago. “Communities that did not seek funding in the first two decades of the epidemic have, unfortunately, now often been left out.”
On top of this, support for HIV programs in the U.S. has been stagnant or shrinking, even as ever-increasing numbers of people living with HIV. “As a result, our resources are being stretched thinner and thinner,” says Hardy.
But, perhaps the worst problem is one that is far less tangible.
“Apathy is our number one enemy today” reflects Hardy. “No one wears a red ribbon anymore. The passion about this issue has died down. Now perhaps more than ever, this has become ‘someone else’s’ battle: If you’re a young person, you think drugs will save you if you become infected. If you’re white, you think it affects only people of color. If you’re straight, it’s about the gays. If you lived through the first wave of the epidemic, you’re tired of all the AIDS talk. If you live in the U.S., the real problem is in Africa. Never has leadership been more important than it is today.”
With offices in Dayton, Lima, Mansfield and Toledo, AIDS Resource Center provides a continuum of HIV-specific support and prevention services across 35 Ohio counties. For more information, contact ARC Ohio at 937-4612437 or visit www.arcohio.org.
Jen Zeff is a development associate and executive assistant with the AIDS Resource Center Ohio.