Diagnosed with the H.I.V. virus five years ago, 36-year-old Jarvis Dennis refuses all medications. Yet his T-cells — crucial to the body’s immune system and the target of H.I.V. — persevere, and the level of the virus in his blood is under control.
“To be honest, I put it in God’s hands. He won’t put more on you than you can bear,” Dennis said. “It’s the will of God. And I’m in no position to second-guess God.”
The number of reported AIDS cases in New Haven has plummeted in recent years, but the immense toll the AIDS epidemic in New Haven has wreaked was unmistakable at the 12th annual Service of Memorial and Prayer organized by the AIDS Interfaith Network, or AIN, Wednesday.
With only 70 in attendance at the Immanual Baptist Church Chapel to remember those lost to a disease that has claimed hundreds in New Haven, the social workers and victims’ friends and family gathered at the chapel bemoaned the lack of empathy for AIDS victims.
“It hasn’t hit the billionaires yet. People would rather come together for the World Trade Center bombing, which was a bad thing, but AIDS has been around for 21 years now,” said Dennis, who lost his sister Leila to AIDS last June. “If people can put their pride aside, we can easily fill up the Green downtown [for a memorial service].”
There were 42 new cases of AIDS reported in New Haven this year through June, down from 327 in 1993, according to records from the state Department of Public Health. But no count exists for the number of H.I.V. diagnoses because of a politically charged debate on the privacy of those being tested. The H.I.V. virus causes AIDS, but with better treatment now available, many people are living with H.I.V., their T-cell counts well above 200, the mark for the inception of AIDS.
Aaron Roome, the program coordinator of the H.I.V./AIDS Surveillance Program for the Connecticut Department of Public Health, estimated there are 5,000 to 10,000 people diagnosed with H.I.V. in the state.
New Haven appears to have more than 1,000, AIN Executive Director Joyce Poole said.
Irwin Krieger, a clinical social worker for AIN, helped in the early 1980s to start AIDS Project New Haven, another non-profit AIDS support group in the city. Krieger said he watched the disease take its toll on the gay community then and has since watched it extend its grip to minority groups and substance abusers.
Krieger pointed to a general lack of support for victims.
“I think it’s still something people don’t deal with unless it’s in their face,” he said.
The 14-year-old AIDS Interfaith Network is a faith-based non-profit organization with on-site substance abuse and mental health counseling for those battling H.I.V. and AIDS. Poole said a collective belief in prayer unites the Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Baptists among the group’s staff and clients.
Poole, too, lost a relative to AIDS, though she said she did not find out he was a victim until five years after his death, when she learned at a retreat about the progression of AIDS and matched it with the circumstances of her relative’s death.
“It wasn’t a thing you talked about then,” Poole said.
During the service Wednesday, a reading of the names of loved ones lost stretched on, with nearly everyone in the chapel rising one by one to call out the names of the victims who had touched their lives. Some called out one name. One man took out a journal and named more than 20.
“I come because it’s good to remember,” Dennis said, “to not forget the ones that have fallen by the wayside.”