John Liggett says he lived with Human Immunodeficiency Virus for years before doctors called to say he had the infection.
Without a test, the 59-year-old Wichitan says he might have passed HIV to his former wife or his then-young children.
Saturday, Liggett said everyone should know their HIV/AIDS status.
“What’s going on in my body is a war … and I have an army of pills that I need to fight it,” said Liggett, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1996.
“Everybody should know for sure.”
Dozens, including Liggett, gathered Saturday morning in downtown Wichita to mark World AIDS Day, established in 1998 by the World Health Organization to bring awareness to the AIDS epidemic.
Several people carrying bold, red signs calling for “Zero discrimination” and “Zero new HIV infections” marched along East Douglas to First Metropolitan Community Church, 156 S. Kansas.
Others joined later for an AIDS awareness program and chili feed at the church.
“We are trying to get people re-involved and re-understanding that HIV/AIDS is not gone,” said Dr. Donna Sweet, professor of medicine at University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, who spoke at the event.
“The epidemic is not over.”
AIDS — Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome — is caused by HIV. The disease affects the immune system, making its carriers more susceptible to other illnesses.
Nearly 1.2 million Americans are infected with HIV, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
About 50,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, Sweet said.
All result from having unprotected sex with an infected partner or from using intravenous drugs, and as many as a third of infected people don’t know they carry the virus.
“I always tell people if you’ve had sex in the last 10 years, no matter what age you are, you need a test,” Sweet said.
Wichita’s World AIDS Day event was hosted by the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, in collaboration with the Sedgwick County Health Department, First Metropolitan Community Church, Positive Directions, Hunter Health Clinic and the Kansas AIDS Education and Training Center.
It marks the start of AIDS Awareness Month, which runs through December.
From the sanctuary of First Metropolitan Church, Wichitan Matt Fenwick listened as the names of more than 100 HIV/AIDS patients ill or dead from the disease were read.
He said the list made him remember a college friend who died from HIV/AIDS more than a decade ago.
“I don’t want people to suffer like I saw him suffer,” said Fenwick, when asked why he attended the program. “I try to support any way I can.”
Later, Susan Tusher, senior coordinator for the Kansas AIDS Education and Training Center, helped hand out condoms and educational brochures in the basement of the church.
Around her, people hummed as local musicians the Diversity Singers sang Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” Several wore a red ribbon — the symbol for AIDS awareness — on their shirts.
One in five people are unaware of their HIV status, according to the KDHE.
One of the best defenses against spreading the disease, Tusher said, is to get tested.
“HIV doesn’t just affect gay men or intravenous drug users. It affects all groups.
“Everyone deserves to know their status.”