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Silencing the stigma

By Kenya Smith

Dec. 1 was World AIDS Day, where people came together to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and to remember those who have died of it.

AIDS, short for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, is caused by HIV — Human Immunodeficiency Virus — which attacks the CD4 cells (T-cells). These cells help the immune system by fighting off infections. If left untreated, HIV reduces the number of these cells, exposing the person to other infections. As a result, AIDS develops.

AIDS began to make headlines in the early 1980s, when five healthy young gay men became seriously ill. Since little was known about AIDS, people took extra measures to prevent infection. Sadly, some of those measures went too far due to the growing stigma. Even though there were rare cases of the disease found among drug users, female workers and Haitians, people quickly associated AIDS with gay men and dubbed it “the gay disease.”

This connection led some people to believe that AIDS was God’s way of punishing or cursing people who were LGBT. One famous example was when the late Rev. Jerry Falwell stated that “AIDS is God’s revenge for the sin of homosexuality” and suggested that AIDS victims be quarantined.

As the stigma grew stronger and thousands of more people succumbed to AIDS, discrimination against people with AIDS began to rise. Even youth with AIDS were targets of ridicule.

Ryan White, 13, became a champion for AIDS awareness after being barred from returning to middle school in Kokomo, Ind., because he had AIDS. After battling the school system, Ryan was allowed back to school in 1986, but people still labeled him as a health risk despite recent information proving that people could not contract AIDS through any casual contact. As a result, people avoided shaking hands with Ryan and his family, vandals trashed their yard with garbage, and someone even shot a bullet in the window of their house.

To escape public ridicule, the White family moved in 1987 to Cicero, where the community welcomed them. The principal at Ryan’s new school made sure that the students knew about AIDS, and the students carried what they learned about AIDS to their parents. Ryan was even invited to school dances and got a job. He fought hard to debunk the notion that AIDS was a curse or punishment and to demand that blood donations should be tested for HIV. Although Ryan died on April 8, 1990, a month before his high school graduation, he lived life to the fullest, and his legacy still lives on. Four months after Ryan’s death, President George H.W. Bush signed The Ryan White CARE Act, which guarantees improved care for low-income, uninsured and underinsured AIDS patients and their families.

Regardless of race, age, religion, gender, sexual orientation or social status, AIDS has no favorite group. Therefore, never look down on people with AIDS, and never say, “It won’t happen to me,”

To learn more about HIV/AIDS, good places to visit are www.cdc.gov and www.who.int.


Kenya Smith is a Suffolk native. Email her at s.kenya43@yahoo.com.