Berk: AIDS in the Elm City

The AIDS crisis is not over. In fact, it’s in our front yard.

Over 6,000 people in the greater New Haven community are currently living with HIV/AIDS. The disease affects every age group, every ethnicity and every sexual orientation. With 15,000 AIDS cases reported in Connecticut in 2007, the state has the ninth highest AIDS case rate per capita. AIDS is not just a global issue; it’s a local problem.

In the nearly three decades since the disease was first diagnosed, progress has been made. We have medicines, research funding and a fundamental understanding of the disease. For those on antiretrovirals, HIV is no longer a death sentence; for those with basic education, HIV is mostly preventable.

Yet even in the United States, stigma persists, discrimination abounds and misinformation continues to lead to unfounded prejudice against homosexuals, drug users and the HIV-positive community. Although HIV currently requires less medical maintenance than other chronic conditions such as diabetes, the social weight of a positive HIV test remains incomparable to other illnesses. Solving the current HIV epidemic in the United States requires more than pharmaceutical drugs, it requires a fundamental shift in how we view HIV and AIDS: a movement to end stigma and increase prevention.

Of course, progress has been made on this front as well. Many cities have needle exchange programs, and in 1998, the Supreme Court ruled it illegal to discriminate based on HIV status. This progress came as the result of a movement that made HIV/AIDS not just a disease but an issue of social justice. The group of people who spurred this movement —who educated the masses, who fought for equality — were not scientists or lawyers or teachers. They were passionate community members that recognized injustice and mobilized to do something about it.

We can continue that movement. Students, with their energy and vast social networks, are best equipped to raise awareness, lobby for change and fight for social justice. Speak up. Support the community. Donate to a cause. Martin Luther King Jr. once said “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Don’t be a silent friend.

Every April, hundreds of students and community members unite to hear live music, listen to inspirational speakers and walk through the streets of New Haven to raise awareness for the local HIV epidemic as part of the five-kilometer AIDS Walk. Sponsored by an organization run by Yale student volunteers, the walk has become a symbol of the community coming together to respond to a public health issue, promote individual and community wellness and help those most in need. The proceeds go to nine local charities that provide vital patient services, housing, education, hospice care and prevention projects throughout the city.

By walking together, students can leave a positive impact on the community. In the inspirational words of anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Help bring real change to your community, and the world.

Let the AIDS Walk be your first step.

Justin Berk is a senior in Pierson College and the co-director of AIDS Walk New Haven.

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