ANYONE WHO HAS WATCHED a fellow human being die of AIDS knows that the illness has cruel consequences. There’s little to be gained arguing where AIDS ranks on the line-up of maladies, but it’s worth noting that today, World AIDS Day, the last set of statistics released said 33 million people were living worldwide with the HIV/AIDS, and in its wake the disease has left 16 million orphans.
For a day or two, or until other stories divert the attention of the mass media, the news will be full of the grim facts of HIV/AIDS along with reports on the very real progress made in stemming the growth of a pandemic that has already killed an estimated 30 million people around the globe. But it’s hard to absorb what figures so large could mean. Maybe a better starting place is the number 94.
That’s how many people in Columbia County were living with HIV/AIDS four years ago, based on data available from the state Department of Health. The number is larger — 147 — when prisoners with HIV/AIDS are added to the equation. The data reported to the public don’t go into greater detail on a county-by-county basis, because to do so might compromise the privacy of individuals. That makes it difficult to draw conclusions, because the numbers are based on regional reports, and Columbia County is part of the department’s Northeast Region, which covers 17 counties from here to the Canadian border, and takes in the cities of Albany, Schenectady and Troy among other, more densely populated areas.
The population of the region is overwhelmingly white, and the largest single group of people living with HIV/AIDS is white, although a disproportionately high percentage of black residents live with the illness or the virus that causes it. Men are twice as likely as women to live with HIV/AIDS in this region, a very different picture compared to the global profile, which shows HIV/AIDS as an equal opportunity affliction when it comes to gender.
One other AIDS fact might interest residents of Columbia County, where the population is among the oldest in the state. The health department finds that one in four of those who carry the virus in this region learned of their diagnosis when they were 50 years old or older.
Medical advances, particularly the use of anti-retroviral drugs, has led to a major decrease in the number of people dying from AIDS and a resulting increase in the number of people living with HIV/AIDS. But the effectiveness of treatment has also led to complacency, especially among young people, who reportedly don’t get it that treatment is expensive and not entirely effective at preventing the ravages of AIDS. As yet there is no known cure.
This county is fortunate to have multiple efforts to test for HIV and to educate kids about the threat that AIDS still poses to them and the community. One of the most successful programs is STARS (Seriously Talking About Responsible Sex) run by Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood here and in Albany County. Teens train as peer educators and then share their knowledge about HIV/AIDS and other topics involving sexually transmitted diseases, including information on how to prevent becoming infected and infecting others.
If you’re an adult and you think you know how to talk to kids about sex — you probably don’t, at least not until you have listened to how directly and honestly and helpfully the students who participate in the STARS program counsel other kids their age.
The frankness of the discussions can sometimes make me and possibly some other grownups squirm, as in: I didn’t know they knew about that. But programs have to connect with kids if we want them to be effective. Forget about what you think kids ought to know. Programs like STARS are saving children’s lives.
It’s World AIDS Day, and the problems of combating the pandemic around the planet remain a daunting task. Here, the numbers are small, so it’s tempting to call them “manageable,” especially by comparison to the scale of agony in places like sub-Saharan Africa. We can take hope that those 147 or so people living with HIV/AIDS in this county reflect progress in the struggle against this illness. But this day should remind us that we won’t have managed HIV/AIDS until we eliminate it, and we’re still a long way from that goal.