Once a dark day of little more than helpless remembrance, World AIDS Day is now a day of hope that future generations won’t have to live in fear of HIV, a leading University of Kansas physician and researcher told a Wichita crowd on Sunday.
“We have really, in three decades, moved from a disease that was a disaster – and it truly was something that killed everybody in pretty short order,” said Donna Sweet, a professor with the KU School of Medicine in Wichita and a nationally recognized expert on HIV and AIDS. “You fast-forward now to what we can do. If we can find people early, you do not have to have any diminution of your life expectancy.”
Now the goal is summed up in three zeroes: zero new infections, zero discrimination against people with HIV and zero AIDS-related deaths, she said.
“We’re not there yet,” she conceded.
But she said the goal is in sight if society takes the proper steps to eradicate the disease, primarily through education, widespread testing for the virus and access to treatment for those infected.
Sweet was the featured speaker at a World AIDS Day observance attended by about 100 people at the First Metropolitan Community Church in Wichita.
Sweet told the group that widespread testing for HIV is the new frontier in AIDS activism.
With early detection, new drug combinations can reduce the virus to undetectable levels, extending and improving the lives of infected people and greatly reducing the chance of the disease passing to others, she said.
The prognosis is much grimmer when people with HIV are diagnosed after they have opportunistic infections attacking their weakened immune systems, Sweet said.
“Truly, a lot of the people who die of HIV-AIDS now are ones that weren’t picked up,” she said. “We still have a number of people who haven’t been tested, who do not know they have it.”
Sweet encouraged attendees to talk to friends and family members and encourage them to be tested for HIV, particularly young people.
With AIDS no longer the automatic death sentence it once was, public attention has been diverted and it’s harder to get the prevention message out, she said.
“Our youth are taking chances that we would prefer they not take,” Sweet said. “In this country as well as others, we’re not as honest with our kids. We don’t teach as much as we should in the school system about what is and isn’t safe and good behavior.
“We try to talk to kids about just not having sex and not doing (injectable) drugs, when, unfortunately, some of them are already in those patterns and we need to figure out how to help them to be safer,” she said.
Blane Oborney, a 23-year-old man with HIV who spoke just after Sweet, said that’s pretty much what happened to him.
He said that before he was diagnosed three years ago, his knowledge of HIV and AIDS had come from a one-hour class at LaCrosse High School that covered the virus and several other sexually transmitted diseases.
“When I found out I had it, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said.
Now, once a day, he takes a pill that contains three drugs that are keeping the virus in check.
But the treatment is costly, about $3,000 a month. He said that’s a worry because he’s currently on worker’s compensation from a knee injury unrelated to his HIV infection.
Oborney provides educational programs to high school students in rural Kansas to make them aware of the risks of HIV and how to protect themselves.
“These kids will go to a college where it’s more prevalent in bigger cities and be exposed to it, and that’s a reality that we have to face,” he said. “It’s not a comfortable reality, but it’s a reality I face every day.”