AIDS is a reality, not a distant devastation

Gustavo Setrini

Living in Appleton, Wisconsin, and studying at Lawrence University, it is rare to encounter someone who is living with or dying from acquired immuno-deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, an epidemic that has become so widespread in its devastation that it is threatening the global economy and security. It is very easy for the average college student to see the AIDS crisis as a problem so foreign to them that it requires no thought or action beyond pinning on the red bit of ribbon to acknowledge the more than five million people—mostly people in sub-Saharan Africa, prostitutes, drug users, or gay men—who contracted the disease last year. Last Wednesday, SOUP brought Anne Pasqua to Riverview lounge where she presented “Living and Loving in a World with AIDS” in an attempt to alter this perception of the AIDS epidemic. She says, “People need to speak out to make [others] aware of AIDS in their community, because it does exist.”

Pasqua, whose mother and step-father died of the disease, has made a personal mission of bringing AIDS awareness and prevention education to college campuses like ours.

The presentation involved two activities designed to illustrate that it is not who we are, but rather the choices we make about what activities to engage in that make us susceptible to HIV infection.

In the first, a group of six students were asked to role play in a typical situation where a young woman was trying to determine whether to become sexually involved with one of her male classmates, and one of the six characters was infected with HIV. The audience learned through a series of monologues, read by the characters, that despite the fact that the young man she was considering had had only one other sexual partner, the pattern of behavior among the group of six made each of them susceptible to HIV infection. The fictitious situation demonstrated how making the decision to become sexually active with one person involves much more risk than is apparent in his or her behaviors alone.

The other exercise involved another simulated scenario, where each member of the audience received a plastic cup of water to represent his or her body fluids. Three of the cups were “infected” with the HIV virus, and 29 were uninfected. The students proceeded to transfer and mix their cup of fluid with three other students, representing unprotected sex, the sharing of needles, or any other transfer of the body fluids which carry significant concentrations of the HIV virus. After three transfers, the cups were “tested” with a drop of phenol-pheylene, and the infected cups turned pink. The three cups that were initially HIV positive had infected 20 others, leaving only 9 participants in the exercise HIV negative. Students that tested positive felt a sense of disbelief, having thought during the exercise that they would be lucky enough to evade the risk. Two students who were asked to remain “abstinent” felt somewhat left-out, and awkward about having to refuse other peoples advances.

The point made by Pasqua, during her lecture and these activities, is that HIV/AIDS does exist within our own communities, regardless of who or where we are, and when we choose to engage in certain activities we are truly opening ourselves up to the risk of contracting it. It is a great disservice to everyone that AIDS continues to be stigmatized as a disease of African, homosexual, or drug-using communities, because it does not in any way reflect the reality of the crisis, or give a realistic understanding of what needs to be done to combat it.

The HIV virus is indiscriminate; anyone who engages in unprotected sexual intercourse is at a risk for infection, regardless of race, class, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation. When asked, in response to this assertion, the purpose of banning sexually active gay men from donating blood, despite the fact that the unprotected nature of sexual intercourse rather than its orientation creates a high risk of HIV, Pasqua replied that it can be a discriminatory practice; however certain standards are necessary in order to ensure a safe blood supply.

In addition to ignorance about the risk factors of AIDS, treatments that claim to afford a relatively normal life to those living with AIDS create a sense of complacency toward AIDS prevention. The reality of AIDS treatment is that, though it can be made inactive, the virus cannot ever be completely eliminated from the body, and treatment requires a permanent daily regimen of 30 or more pills at a cost of $15,000-20,000 each year. In addition, the treatment can create a high risk of developing diabetes. Also, drug-resistant strains of the virus are already appearing and are beginning to spread within the general population.

Stressing abstinence as the preferred method of preventing HIV infection, Pasqua gave a creative list of ways to achieve sexual fulfillment that involved no risk of HIV at all, highlighting the virtues of masturbation, in a song sung to the tune of the battle hymn of the republic. If one should choose to become sexually active in any way that involves the transfer of body fluids, she advocates regular testing for HIV every 3-6 months at any of the variety of community organizations that offer testing.

Pasqua concluded by stating that it is much easier to keep from getting the virus by making responsible choices on a day to day basis, than it is to live with the virus each day: “Nobody with AIDS sleeps at night; we all stay up wondering how we are going to die.