Dec. 1 was dedicated as World AIDS Day in 1988 by the United Nations in recognition of the AIDS epidemic. The world’s first global health day, it is meant to be a reminder of those who have died as a result of HIV and AIDS — more than 25 million since the first reports of the disease in 1981 — and a chance to educate.
Student groups are working to spread awareness for this year’s World AIDS Day as well. Four student organizations are co-sponsoring an event on Dec. 4 in the Student Commons Theater. To promote their event and try to raise further awareness about HIV/AIDS, members of the organizations involved planted scores of small red flags on the Harris Hall lawn in the shape of a ribbon on Dec. 1.
Of the roughly 1.2 million people living with HIV in the U.S., one in five people don’t know they have the disease, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Jasmine Abrams, a VCU graduate student in health psychology, works with a group on campus called the Raise Five Project. The group targets African-American students to educate them about risky behaviors and part of their mission is to spread awareness about HIV in the African-American community.
She said that not knowing one’s status is a risk factor that leads to many new infections.
The Raise Five Project, started in 2010, is designed to raise student awareness of five key factors in African-American student health. One of those factors is the risky behaviors associated with the transmission of HIV.
“A lot of that information, that HIV 101, they’re completely unaware of. Just basic facts about how it’s transmitted. You have to go up against … two generations of mythology in some cases,” said Deborah Butler, the project coordinator for the Raise Five Project. Those who work on the project are surprised by the misconceptions some participants have — such as the notion that HIV can be transmitted through saliva (it can’t, but it can be transmitted through semen, blood, breast milk and vaginal fluid).
The group runs evidence-based programs packaged by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to educate African-Americans on the dangers of risky behaviors, including unprotected sex. Two of the programs, called Nia and SISTA (Sisters Informing Sisters on the Topic of AIDS), deal with men and women, respectively.
“One of the reasons SISTA and Nia are so successful and have been documented to be so is because there’s some skill-building in there,” Butler said. “In SISTA, young women are taught how to put on a condom. They’re taught how to negotiate with their partners. So it’s not just ‘Here’s what HIV is, use condoms, go on with your life.’”
Butler says the Raise Five Project, the full name of which is “HIV and Substance Abuse Prevention among African American College Students,” targets African-Americans because of how HIV disproportionately affects the group in America — the CDC reports that in 2009, African Americans made up just 14 percent of the U.S.e population but accounted for 44 percent of all new HIV infections. Black men accounted for 70 percent of new infections among African-Americans.
There are no hard answers as to why African-Americans are affected more than other groups. Butler points to cultural mistrust as a contributing factor within the African American community. She said this mistrust extends from individuals in the medical profession all the way to the U.S. government as a whole and stretches all the way back to the Tuskegee Experiment, a clinical study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service in Tuskegee, Ala., between 1932 and 1972. In the study, researchers deliberately infected hundreds of poor black sharecroppers and left them untreated to study how the disease progressed when left unchecked. Butler said that mistrust continues to this day among African-Americans, but educational efforts are helping refocus people’s concerns to how their behaviors can help stop the infection.
“We’re trying to change attitudes. You can’t change behavior without changing attitudes and creating a new norm,” Butler said. She says they are seeing some success in raising awareness because student organizations are reaching out to them to help put on events.
“I think this is one of the reasons they’ve been so successful. All of our interventions are peer-led. The students that work with us that implement the interventions are graduate students or seniors who have been trained by CDC trainers,” she said. “It’s one thing for someone who’s old enough to be their grandmother or mother to stand up and run these sessions and have these discussions with them.”
Abrams, one of the project’s peer leaders, was asked to speak at the African Student Union’s World Aids Day Awareness Banquet on Nov. 30, where centerpieces included red ribbons and condoms. Her presentation included how the disease is transmitted and illustrated how prevalent the disease is in the African-American community and Africa.
Nakuma Wani-Kenyi, the vice president of the ASU, is originally from South Sudan. She said one of her mother’s closest friends has been living with AIDS for almost ten years.
“People really need to take this seriously. Especially after having a talk with (her family friend) and her telling me about it, you really need to protect yourself,” Wani-Kenyi said.
She said that many Africans don’t know much about the disease and that the ASU holds this event every year to educate students on the basics of HIV transmission and prevention.
Mohamed Diomande is an ASU member and a junior originally from the Ivory Coast who said he never realized how seriously Africa was impacted by HIV/AIDS. He said he learned from Abrams presentation that you could catch HIV through oral sex and that vaginal fluids can transmit the disease.
“I haven’t (been tested). After seeing this, I’m thinking I should,” he said.
In a survey conducted by The Well, 55.9 percent of respondents said they hadn’t been tested, despite 79.6 percent agreeing that HIV testing among college students is important for preventing HIV.
The Centers for Disease Control now recommend HIV testing as a part of routine yearly screening for adults. VCU distributes a factsheet on sexually transmitted infections that includes a list of places where affordable testing can be done — Student Health Services, Fan Free Clinic, Richmond City Health Department, local Planned Parenthood offices and others. Now, people can even test themselves in the privacy of their own homes — in July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first over-the-counter HIV rapid result test.
“We don’t care where students go to get their annual test, but we want to normalize that all adults should be getting an HIV test annually,” said Dr. Linda Hancock, a clinician at VCU’s Student Health Services and the director of VCU’s Wellness Resource Center (The Well).
Once a month during the semester, The Well partners with the Raise Five Project and the Fan Free Clinic to provide free oral HIV testing on campus. Hancock says anywhere from 30 to nearly 100 students come to The Well to get tested on an average free-testing day and that participants receive their results in about 40 minutes.
“The number one reason (why students didn’t get tested) was fear of results … the stigma is forcing people to not get tested because they’re scared of what that might mean for their life,” Abrams said. She hopes that by reducing the stigma associated with the infection, students will feel more comfortable getting tested.