World AIDS Day event gives Richmonders a chance to remember and share
Bob Higginson, lovingly known as Dr. Bob to those who have used his services as VCU’s HIV/AIDS clinic, shared some terrifying numbers before a humble crowd at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Church Hill last night:
There’s 1.2 million in the US who are HIV infected… there are 50,000 new infections every year, one new infection every 10 mins. There are about 1000 new infections in Virginia every year – 6,000 people live with HIV/AIDS in Richmond area. And there are 350 new infections in Richmond alone every year.
“That’s about five a week,” he said. “We can get to zero, but its going to take some work. Five people in Richmond every week is five too many.”
World AIDS Day has been celebrated in cities around the globe for almost 30 years, and while the impacts of activist work in the 90s and pharmaceutical companies today has curbed what was once a death sentence, the illness continues to plague many, most often men who have sex with men in communities of color.
“In the African American community, the progress, pharmaceutical and treatment advances, have not reversed the trends where in we find too many people dying too often and too young from this treatable and preventable disease,” said Dr, Cynthia Newbille, 7th District Richmond Councilwoman and a long time activist for HIV/AIDS services in the city.
“It is a collective effort… we all most work together to move back the needle on the health of our community… while we’ve made remarkable progress in the fight against HIVE/AIDS, we’re no where near the goal,” she said.
Newbille was among several speakers who hoped to inform folks and advance conversations around HIV/AIDS as Richmond continues to suffer. She preached the idea of what she called E.S.T.: education, screening and treatment.
“We’ve made enough advances that we can live long, healthy viable lives. But that can only happen if we educate, screen and treat,” she said.
Dr. Bob agreed, noting that while infection and death rates have dropped, he’s still seeing two kinds of people come into his office: people who have been living for the disease for over a decade, and people who are newly infected.
“I’d much rather have fewer people we have to treat so we don’t have to worry about this in the future,” he said. “Hopefully some day we can look back and remember when there was HIV.”
James Millner, President of Virginia Pride, also spoke at the event. He listed off the names of some of the friends he lots through the years and said that, while larger conversations around AIDS usually point to Africa, the crisis is in our backyard as well.
“AIDS has no boundary, it recognizes no border… It affects us all – whether we’re gay or straight. Regardless of our race, gender, or gender identity,” he said. “It impacts us all not because of how we’re different, but what we all have in common – we’re human.”
Millner was flanked by Jeananne Adams, a volunteer with Holy Rosary’s HIV/AIDS ministry during the worst of the crisis here in RVA.
As a former nurse, she remembered the only treatments available when the disease broke out were mask, gloves, soap and water, and prayer.
“You prayed for yourself, your family, for your patients, cause you didn’t know what or when you would become infected or if someone would infect you,” she said.
The Richmond World AIDS Day service includes a chance for those affected by the illness to share their stories before the crowd. One man, a recent Florida transplant who said he’d been living with HIV for about a decade, spoke of the stigma that people like him often face when they are open with their diagnosis.
“Living with it is lonely, getting medications, being fearful if you can afford the medications is enough – but to know you’re looked at as a second class citizen in your community is the worst part,” he said. But he pointed to the church vestibules with a look of hope between tears.
“Showing up at events like this shows you love and you care,” he said. “It can attack anyone, but it is a preventable disease and so is the stigma.”
In another moving shared story, the mother of an AIDS patient spoke tearfully and recalled times spent in Dr. Bob’s office, often finding solace in his words of support.
“You taught me how to appreciate my son…” she said. “But more importantly, I learned unconditional love… I lived with it and I speak it every opportunity I get.”
She too acknowledged the issues many living with the illness face, especially those who are abandoned by their families once they share the truth.
“Love your children in spite of what society says. Love those persons living with AIDS,” she said. “Take the time to embrace something you may not understand, but love unconditionally.”
The day’s events also included a candle light vigil and march in Carytown as well as a day-service at Richmond’s Metropolitan Community Church. Keep up with Richmond’s World AIDS Day event on facebook here and mark your calendars for next years’ ceremony.
“It is never mournful. It is a time to share the impact our loved ones have left,”November 30, 2016
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