Utah’s capital city officially celebrated World AIDS Day for the second year in a row with (Salt Lake City) Red, an event to commemorate people in Utah and throughout the world who are affected by HIV/AIDS and to encourage Utahns to continue educating one another about the disease.
“Probably almost everyone, whether we know it or not, has been touched by friends or family with HIV/AIDS,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker from the steps of the Salt Lake City & County Building. He was joined by councilmembers Jill Remington Love, Luke Garrott and Stan Penfold, who is also executive director of the Utah AIDS Foundation. Other councilmembers, he explained, had to leave for a conference on municipal government in Denver.
Roughly 100 people turned out for the event, held from 5:30–6 p.m. on the western steps of the Salt Lake City & County Building. Before reading aloud and signing a proclamation recognizing World AIDS Day in Salt Lake City, Becker and the city council handed the microphone over to a number of speakers.
Although Dec. 1 marked the 22nd World AIDS Day, Penfold noted that “the funny thing is, no one seems to be talking about HIV/AIDS.”
“In fact, it almost seems like it doesn’t exist,” he said, noting that rates of new infections were on the rise throughout the United States and Utah as well. In fact, Penfold said that the lack of media attention on the disease directly correlated with these increased rates, particularly in youth.
“It is very possible in Utah that a young person can complete their entire education and not have a discussion about how you get HIV,” he said. Reminding the crowd that the world has known how HIV is spread for years, Penfold encouraged them to “shout it out that you want to have a conversation about HIV/AIDS [because] only we can stop HIV.”
Prolific Utah poet Emma Lou Thayne helped to put a human face on what Becker called “sobering” HIV/AIDS statistics by recounting her friendship with artist Paul Fini, who completed paintings of the 14 Stations of the Cross before his death from complications due to AIDS. After being willed these paintings, Thayne held a local exhibit of them in 1993 entitled “The Paintings, the Painter and the Poet” in which, she said she tried to explain “why a young painter from Chicago would will these paintings to an old woman in Salt Lake.”
“I’d never heard of AIDS until [I met Fini],” she said. “I was in great remorse over what happened to him” and to his partner, David, who also died from AIDS complications.
In this year’s resolution, which was similarly worded to the first such World AIDS Day resolution Salt Lake City adopted last year, Becker stated that an estimated 32,000 Utahns are living with HIV/AIDS. The majority of new infections, he read, are being discovered in Salt Lake County and young adults between age 20 and 29 had the highest rate of new infections. Further, while ethnic minorities make up just 17 percent of Utah’s population, 25 percent of new HIV infections occur in Utahns of color. (Earlier, Penfold noted that while Latinos comprise 12 percent of Utah’s population, it also accounts for 17 percent of the state’s HIV infections).
On World AIDS Day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released grim statistics about HIV and AIDS in the United States. According to a statement by CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, at least 200,000 U.S. Americans are unaware that they have HIV. Additionally, despite the CDC’s call in 2006 for all Americans to be tested for HIV, 55 percent of adults and 28.3 percent who have at least one risk factor for getting the virus (such as using intravenous drugs) have not been tested.
“[S]tark disparities in HIV infection rates persist: men who have sex with men of all races, African-Americans and Latinos are most affected,” added Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB [tuberculosis] Prevention.
In September, a CDC study noted that one in five men who have sex with men has HIV. The study was conducted in 21 major U.S. cities. Public health officials use the term men who have sex with men because many men who have same-sex sexual encounters do not identify as gay, bisexual or homosexual.
However, the CDC also had some good news. “Two landmark studies,” said Fenton, have suggested that two anti-retroviral medications could be used in preventing HIV infections. One of these studies, he said, indicated that the drug Tenofovir when used in vaginal microbicide gel reduced HIV risk among women. Research into microbicides, which are devices designed to stop viruses like HIV from attacking cells, is currently being conducted in several laboratories at the University of Utah.
“Results of a second study, reported [in late November], found that a daily dose of a pill containing two anti-retroviral medications already used to treat HIV reduced HIV risk among gay and bisexual men, when used in combination with other prevention methods, including condoms,” Fenton continued, calling this method pre-exposure prophylaxis. The CDC, he said, is currently at work “with partners across federal agencies to develop guidelines for the use of PrEP among gay and bisexual men in the United States.”
In July, the U.S. government announced a move to drastically cut rates of new HIV infections in the nation by 2015.