‘Getting To Zero’
Vigil Marks World AIDS Day As Quest To End Epidemic Goes On
Posted: December 3, 2012
HARRISONBURG — Instead of heading home to family for Thanksgiving this year, James Madison University student Emily Kunath and her friends spent the holiday helping AIDS patients in New Orleans as part of an alterative break program.
When they returned to the Harrisonburg campus, they saw posters advertising a World AIDS Day vigil, held Saturday night on the Festival Center lawn.
They said they knew they had to participate.
The trip to Louisiana, Kunath said, was an eye-opener. She said that she and many of her friends never realized that AIDS is something every community deals with.
“It brought it home,” said Kunath, a 20-year-old junior biology major from Lunenburg. “It’s an issue that is in our very own community.”
Formed in 1998, World AIDS Day was created to raise awareness and support for those affected by the disease.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, about 22,000 people in the commonwealth are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1.1 million people in the U.S. are infected with HIV and AIDS has led to the deaths of over 600,000 Americans since the epidemic was first detected in 1981. Worldwide, some 35 million people are infected with HIV.
Marilyn Smith Heishman, pastor of St. John’s Reformed United Church of Christ in Staunton, is president of the board of the Valley AIDS Network, which helped organize the event with students from a JMU communications class.
Heishman has been an advocate for those living with AIDS and HIV for roughly three decades — going back to the early days of the epidemic.
The theme of this year’s vigil was “Getting to Zero.” She said the goal is to get to the point where the infection rate, and cases of the disease, are down to zero.
But to reach that goal, she said, people need to be more aware of the virus and AIDS and need to take it more seriously.
“It’s off everyone’s radar,” said Heishman. “It’s now considered a chronic disease. A lot of people think that you manage it with medications like you do for high blood pressure.”
Since the development of antiretroviral drugs in the 1990s, the public perception of HIV has changed dramatically, officials say. Whereas infection was considered a veritable death sentence in the 1980s and early ’90s, the success of antiretroviral drugs has led many to consider HIV infection a long-term condition that can be managed, much like diabetes. While the new class of drugs has made it possible for many with HIV to live relatively normal lives for years and even decades, the medications don’t work the same for everyone and there is still no cure for the disease.
Kelly Vingelis, a 20-year-old junior communication studies major from Fairfax who helped organize the event, hopes events like Saturday’s vigil will show people that the disease is still a deadly one and that the fight against AIDS is long from over.
“We hope it brought awareness [to the issue],” she said, adding that the vigil united both city residents and students. “A lot of people say JMU is in a bubble. This was a way to bring the community together to raise awareness to HIV and AIDS.”
Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6278 or email@example.com