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The danger of complacency about AIDS

The play Angels in America: Part Two – Perestroika just finished its run at Illinois State University. The epic play, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of its Broadway debut this November, explores the devastation the AIDS virus inflicted on the gay community in the 1980s. Yet director and MFA graduate student David Ian Lee says Perestroika is something much more than a period piece. “Angels is a metaphor for larger things – the battle between stasis and fear to compassion and courage.”

The battle against AIDS still rages today, though college students might view it as a thing of the past – a conquered disease. “Many young people see AIDS as an ’80s thing, and that is very unfortunate,” said Lee. “This disease is not gone. We are not done with it.”

The numbers support Lee. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 1 million people in the United States are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In the U.S. those aged 13 to 24 years old represent 25 percent of all new HIV infections. “Those numbers are consistent with other sexually transmitted diseases,” said Medical Director of Student Heath Services Jean Swearingen. “Younger populations that are engaging more are more at risk.”

Underrepresented populations are even more at risk. The highest population with AIDS in the U.S. is African-American men. AIDS also rages in populations across the globe where people have a difficult time gaining access to the drugs that can slow the progress of HIV. “For many struggling people, here and in developing nations, this scourge is very real,” said Lee.

The ISU chapter of the NAACP has put on an HIV Awareness Forum for campus. “There is a stigma in the African-American community,” said 2013 alumnus Nate Gibbs, who organized the 2012 forum. “Most people think technology and medicine are keeping up with the disease, and they do not realize how hard it is hitting African-American and Latino men. We felt we needed to combat this ignorance.”

Over the years, AIDS has shifted from a shunned disease. The gradual acceptance has had positive and negative consequences, said Swearingen, who noted many students now view HIV as just another sexually transmitted disease (STD). “It is more acceptable for students to come in and request an HIV test as part of STD testing,” she said, but also noting “with combinations of drugs, people with AIDS are living longer, so AIDS is being viewed more as a chronic disease rather than lethal. Younger people are not as fearful.”

chart from CDC

Professor of Health Sciences Mark Temple agreed that students are becoming more complacent about HIV. “I had a student in class who said that HIV was ‘not that bad’ because there were drugs for it,” said Temple. “I asked him if he knew those drugs cost $1,000 to $1,500 a month. And this disease is for life. This is not something you want.”

That lack of knowledge for younger people startled Dave Bentlin, who spoke about the play to a group of students. “One of them asked me, ‘What is it about?’ and I was stunned,” said Bentlin of the Office of the Vice President of Student Affairs, who also works with the ISU Triangle Association and the student organization, ISU Pride. “I’ve lost two friends in the last 18 months to AIDS and AIDS-related complications. I am so afraid that today’s younger generations might not be aware of how AIDS and HIV impacted the community.”

A potentially cavalier attitude cannot easily be overcome with facts and figures, noted Temple. Changing attitudes and dispositions are as vital as getting information. “People know it is bad for them to smoke, but they smoke,” said Temple, who worked for years with the Jackson (Illinois) County Health Department. “People know how to avoid HIV through safer sex and not sharing needles. What they need is the attitude to employ those methods, and the communication skills to let people know what behaviors make them feel comfortable and uncomfortable.”

Illinois State’s Health Promotion and Wellness program helps students look at sexual health in a broader perspective. “We want them to be aware of all the issues that come with being sexually active, including sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, pregnancy, intimacy, healthy relationship, etc.,” said Jim Almeda of Health Promotion and Wellness, who added the program employs a risk-reduction approach and peer education. “Our Student Wellness Ambassador Team (SWAT) is comprised of Illinois State University students who are trained to talk about these issues, educate their peers about the resources available on campus and promote healthy behaviors.”

Despite the CDC’s numbers and potential public complacency, Lee takes a page from Tony Kushner’s play he is directing. “In Perestroika we see a broken world, when things feel bleak, dark and alone. That is when we have the greatest obligation to one another. That is when we cannot despair, but embrace love,” said Lee.

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