Turn on the radio, open an Internet browser, or flip the pages of a newspaper and after a few stories, Americans can easily become depressed with the various hardships and difficulties plaguing out country. Unemployment, political bickering, banks defaulting.
But what about the silent killers that never make it to the front pages?
Up in the sprawling hills of Redwood City in a medium-sized home, a small team of employees is working to keep HIV/AIDS on the forefront of people’s minds. The non-profit Until There’s a Cure is headquartered in this home that was donated by one of its founders, Redwood City resident Kathleen Scutchfield.
While they stay quiet, fitting in amongst the large ranch lots in the tranquil neighborhood, they’re shouting the message that HIV/AIDS is still a pervasive problem around the Bay Area, the nation and the world.
Today is National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day, plus the 30-year anniversary of AIDS, but how many actually knew that?
Squashing a Stigma
The 30-year-old disease has infected 33.3 million people worldwide, with 7.5 percent of them children under 15 years of age. Every year, 1.8 million people die from AIDS nationwide, yet only 6 percent of the population thought the rampant disease was a problem.
“It’s a disease associated with sex and drugs,” Executive Director Nora Hanna said of the highly stigmatized disease. “When you show a cute picture of an African baby [with the disease], people want to donate, but not to a homeless drug addict.”
Not only does the disease need a different reputation, Hanna said, it also needs to remain a pressing issue.
Today, kids don’t know many people who are HIV positive, she said. But 30 years, ago, the pandemic wiped out hundreds of men.
“It was a death sentence,” Hanna said. “Musicians, painters, doctors. It wiped out a generation of men.”
So this next generation needs to continue the fight against the disease and make education a priority in society, she said.
In 2010, the Silicon Valley AIDS Leadership Center (SVALC) closed due to the lack of financial support, according to its press release.
"The economy reduced our financial support from the community, and SVALC has struggled", said James Lee, SVALC board president, in a statement. "The board made the very difficult decision to close our doors while we had enough funds to honor our commitment to the agencies we support.”
“We need someone to take up the torch,” Hanna said.
Spreading the Word
Celebrities have eagerly and voluntarily championed the cause, from Susan Sarandon to Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants, a team who has supported the cause for 18 years. They have all stated, “I wear the bracelet,” making a fashion statement that AIDS is a life-threatening disease, but not an all-consuming one. It’s just one part of who positive people are.
By attaching a human face to the disease, it humanizes those who are positive. It’s also a way for people to “not scream about HIV,” but to effectively share the message, Hanna said.
Many of the hand-crafted bracelets are not only messages, but life lines for HIV positive women in Africa.
Until There’s a Cure purchases the bracelets from them, then the organization turns around and sells them, then gives the bracelet makers another percent of their profit, a “double dip” in profits, Hanna said.
“You give a woman a job and you save a village,” Hanna said. These bracelets provide a source of income not only for these women, but also their children.
To highlight the value of these bracelets, Hanna said, Until There’s a Cure is using social media to spread their message. Their Facebook page solicits responses and thoughts from people around the world to create meaningful dialogue.
Bringing Awareness to the Local Level
Attaching a celebrity name on a glossy poster creates awareness, but wide-spread change begins at the local level, Hanna said.
The teaches comprehensive health and sexual education during students’ 8th grade science classes, according to Jane Yuster, District Director of Assessment. The two-week program also includes HIV/AIDS education.
At the beginning of each school year, or at the time of enrollment, parents or guardians are notified about the sexual health instruction and HIV/AIDS prevention education. Should parents or guardians wish to exclude their child from the education, they can submit a written request, according to the California Comprehensive Sexual Health And HIV/AIDS Prevention Education Act. Students will not face disciplinary action and will instead be assigned an alternative educational activity.
The district partners with Teen Talk Sexuality Education, a local education resource, which has taught programs at Redwood City schools for approximately 10 years, according to Yuster.
“We’ve had a long-standing relationship with them,” Yuster said.
Teen Talk Executive Director Shelly Masur said that they also teach a 9th grade program to schools in the . It adds to the education from the 8th grade program.
“Some of the content is repeated,” Masur said. “But often times it needs to be.”
Though there is no formal metric to measure the program’s success, pre- and post- awareness surveys are distributed to students. Results show that average awareness increased from 62 percent to 90 percent after the program, according to the 2011 Teen Talk report card.
Students who were not sexually active said that they were less likely to become sexually active after having the talk, Masur added. Those who were sexually active said they were less likely to have sex unprotected.
Only 13 percent of students were able to name two local helath clinics before the program, and 81 percent were able to name two clinics after, the report added.
All teachers reported that they would welcome the program back to their classrooms.
“It’s a very successful program,” Yuster said, who was a former 8th grade science teacher. “I know my students greatly benefited from it.”
Correction: The original article stated that the disease has infected 33.3 million people nationwide, and 1.8 million people worldwide die from AIDS. The words "nationwide" and "worldwide" were reversed.