- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
In the fight against a worldwide killer, gaining knowledge is the first step toward its eradication.
At Servants of Christ Ministries in La Plata, county officials and residents gathered Wednesday evening to learn more about the fight against HIV and AIDS and to receive a free screening for the virus. World AIDS Day was earlier this week, the Rev. John Lewis of Servants of Christ Ministries said, and the Charles County commissioners declared December a month for AIDS awareness.
Amanda Wilcox, a Charles County Department of Health community health educator, took the floor first to explain the screening process to give folks a chance to get comfortable with the concept. The test also is free when given at the health department, Wilcox said, and should one’s test come back positive for HIV, the department can help people get set up with the proper tools to cope with the disease.
Wilcox’s boss, county Health Officer Dr. Dianna E. Abney, also was there to help educate the crowd. Abney, like Wilcox, was pleased to see a much larger turnout than the event had seen the previous year.
“I am really thrilled at the turnout. … Each of you has done a good job taking the responsibility to get more educated,” Abney said.
Charles County commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) helped Lewis get the ball rolling to get the county’s backing for this event. While in law school, Collins told the crowd, he received an awakening to the nature of the disease. As a student, one of the clinic classes he took was on law around HIV and AIDS, and one of Collins’ clients was a man suffering from AIDS who needed help getting his end-of-life affairs in order, the commissioner said. The man died about two months after the class ended.
“That experience made me see just how severe the impact is and not just on the individual but on the family,” Collins said. “So much of dealing with the disease is based on people’s ignorance. [Lewis] understands how it affects the community, and he jumped on this opportunity. The most important thing is seeing young people here. We will continue to make this something that is necessary in our community.”
Although the county’s 2011 Community Health Needs Assessment identified HIV and AIDS prevalence and diagnosis as one of the areas where the county is doing well, the virus and the disease it causes still loom in the county. According to the assessment, 32 people were diagnosed with HIV in 2008 and 15 with AIDS that year.
Charles County’s rate of living HIV cases — 198 people per 100,000 — is far lower than the state average of 510 per 100,000. African Americans represent 68.5 percent of the region’s living HIV infections, and the trend of new cases is rising in that demographic while decreasing in other ethnicities.
Abney stressed that getting tested is the best way for one to know if she has HIV and AIDS, and finding out early makes treatment that much better.
“We’re empowering people. We’re educating people to go out and talk to other people,” Abney said. “In America, a lot of the way that things change is from the grass-roots level. Changing policy is like moving an aircraft carrier. It takes time, but it can happen.”
Miriam Bois, a licensed social worker who helps Lewis with the Point of Change Jail and Street Ministry program, walked the group through facts about HIV and AIDS. In incarcerated populations, Bois said, HIV and AIDS are much more prevalent. The state’s overall rate of infection is the ninth-highest in the country, Bois said, but those imprisoned are even more likely to be exposed.
“We’re just now talking about it, and that’s a start,” Bois said. “I think the conversation needs to continue.”
Lewis himself was the first to take the HIV test and did so right at the front of the room so everyone gathered could see how quick and easy the requisite cheek swab was. From that point on, people trickled in and out of the side room where the testing could be conducted in silence. Bryans Road teen Derrick Lyles was the second to get the test done. His classmates in a program for youthful offenders, Lyles said, decided to make a poster promoting HIV and AIDS awareness after Lewis reached out to them.
“I have two relatives who passed away from the disease, so I know what it’s like,” Lyles said. “We really wanted to reach out and make a difference. My generation is reluctant to hear information like this. Most will tell you what you want to hear, but at the end of the day they don’t practice safe sex. People in our generation are getting it. We’re young and being introduced to new things. I think they’re experiencing things they maybe shouldn’t be.”
Jeanette Riley of White Plains said she was pleased to see how many teens turned out.
“I like how informative it is for the community and young people. I think that was a good step,” Riley said, adding that she was surprised to learn teenagers still need consent for testing for the diseases, which she feels may hinder them from wanting to talk to their parents. She and Joanne Ray of Newburg felt it might be beneficial to remove those sort of restrictions.
“With kids, even adolescents, what’s the harm?” Ray asked. “Isn’t it better to know and to pass that knowledge on? I wish they had more on what they teach in the high schools. A lot of what I heard is that a lack of education keeps it perpetuating. Without that how do you know what’s sufficient?”
Lewis said he was pleased with how the event turned out, and he plans to keep reaching out for HIV and AIDS awareness in the county.
“I think each person here will go tell people how easy it is to get tested,” Lewis said. “I want to talk more to religious leaders about including this in the spiritual care package. We can tell them, ‘OK, you’ve been promiscuous. God can forgive you.’ But we can also as leaders suggest that they go get tested.”