AIDS activists in New Haven raise awareness



As the number of AIDS patients in New Haven declines, the population of HIV-infected people in the city continues to rise.

HIV/AIDS service providers want to drive home this point during AIDS Awareness Month, which started Wednesday.

“I think there’s still a false sense out there that AIDS has been cured, or that it’s not as serious as it used to be,” said Sylvia Sanders, the volunteer coordinator and recreation assistant at Leeway, Inc. “And it really isn’t.”

Located in New Haven, Leeway, Inc. is Connecticut’s first and only skilled nursing home dedicated to caring for people with HIV/AIDS.

“This disease is not anymore about dying, it’s about living,” said Leeway resident Wanda S., who was diagnosed with HIV nine years ago.

Since highly active antiretroviral therapy became popular in the mid 1990s, people infected with HIV have been able to live for longer periods of time without immediately reverting to AIDS. But there is still no cure for the disease, and Wanda said she still has to pay constant attention to her medicine, diet and doctor appointments.

“[The hardest part is] to have to constantly know that no matter what day it is, I can’t wake up and think I’m free,” Wanda said. “I have to take this medication every day.”

Since AIDS surfaced in New Haven in the early 1980s, approximately 15 organizations have sprung up across the city to offer special services for people with the disease.

Ellen Gabrielle, executive director of AIDS Project New Haven, said people initially thought the disease only affected the gay community. Her group, the oldest AIDS service organization in Connecticut, began as a volunteer effort in 1983. AIDS Project New Haven now serves over 400 people infected with the virus, 75 percent of whom are people of color. The project also helps friends and families of clients, whose numbers are increasing daily, she said.

Elsie W. Cofield, president of AIDS Interfaith Network, founded her program in 1987 after a Yale Divinity student approached her to work on a program for blacks who were dying with AIDS. Cofield, who had been getting ready to retire after 35 years of teaching, began working out of a room in the basement of Immanuel Missionary Baptist Church, where her husband was pastoring. She started “running” with him — visiting patients’ homes, bringing them food, taking them on errands — and the two were busy around the clock.

“At one point, people were dying hand over fist in New Haven,” said Matthew Lopes ’72, director of AIDS services in the New Haven Health Department.

Since the 1980s, a significant percentage of reported AIDS cases in New Haven have been among intravenous drug users. Lopes said he remembers seeing needles everywhere in the city during that time.

In an effort to stop the rapid spread of the disease, the politically controversial Needle Exchange Program came to New Haven over 10 years ago, in which people could exchange dirty syringes for clean ones. Lopes said the program has since cut transmission of the disease by over 33 percent, but because the program pits the “War on AIDS” against the “War on Drugs,” federal politicians refuse to endorse it.

As the number of people with HIV rises, many local service providers are suffering from budget cuts at the state and federal levels. And there is the worry that the general public’s understanding of the disease continues to be misinformed. Gabrielle said the public now perceives AIDS as a manageable disease like diabetes, and there are some people who choose to forget that it exists.

Martha Dale EPH ’80, Leeway’s executive director, said she thinks the most vulnerable population is students and young adults.

“It’s the kids who think that it can’t happen to them,” she said.

Dale said some younger people might believe “there’s a pill that can fix it” or that their socioeconomic group is insulated from HIV/AIDS.

“If there’s one message your readers get, it’s nobody’s protected from this,” she said.

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