A candlelight vigil on the steps of the Sampson County Courthouse Saturday marked World AIDS Day, recognized each Dec. 1 as a time to reflect on the impact of a global public health issue, educate others on its prevention and treatment and renew efforts to fight HIV/AIDS in the ultimate hope for a cure.
That fight has been ongoing for years in Sampson, as Saturday’s candlelight ceremony marked the 19th held locally, said Thomas McLaughlin, chairman of the local HIV/AIDS Taskforce.
“This year’s theme is ‘Working Together for an AIDS-free Generation,’” said McLaughlin, a 15-year HIV survivor. “
Mary Brown, who offered opening comments, said World AIDS Day was a time for reflection and education, and it was the responsibility of those in the community to continue raising awareness of the affliction and make a concerted effort to teach young people the importance of protecting themselves and getting tested.
“Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, a time to reflect on the impact of HIV/AIDS around the world,” said Brown. “On this World AIDS Day, and every day, we should work together toward an AIDS-free generation.”
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a retrovirus that infects cells of the immune system, destroying or impairing their function. As the infection progresses, the immune system becomes weaker and the person becomes more susceptible to infections.
According to the World Health Organization, HIV is transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse, transfusion of contaminated blood sharing of contaminated needles, and between a mother and her infant during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. The most advanced stage of HIV infection is acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). It can take 10-15 years for an HIV-infected person to develop AIDS — antiretroviral drugs can slow down the process even further.
Joyce Gaskin introduced McLaughlin, a longtime employee of Tri-County Community Health, now known as CommWell Health. He said huge strides have been made to treat HIV since the first case was reported more than three decades ago.
“The first case of HIV/AIDS was reported over 30 years ago on June 5, 1981,” he said. “There has been great progress since the first case. Since that time, PLWHA (People Living with HIV/AIDS), researchers, healthcare professionals, non-profit organizations, governments and activists across the globe have worked together to combat that HIV/AIDS epidemic.”
AIDS and HIV infection continue to have a global impact, with an estimated 34.2 million people, including 2.1 million children, living with AIDS or HIV infection, while the disease claims more than 25 million lives worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
In 2011, more than 8 million people living with HIV were receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART) in low- and middle-income countries. Another 7 million people need to be enrolled in treatment to meet the target of providing ART to 15 million people by 2015.
“Thanks to recent advances in access to antiretroviral therapy,” said McLaughlin, “HIV-positive people now live longer and healthier lives.”
An estimated 2.7 million people were newly infected in 2010 and approximately 1.8 million people die every year from HIV/AIDS, McLaughlin said. The North Carolina HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report states that in Sampson County there were two HIV cases and three AIDS cases reported from January to June 2012.
Coupled with the advances in science, the stigma has eased with more and more education.
“A great deal of prevention education has helped inform people and reduce stigma,” McLaughlin said. “Testing has improved and become more accessible, and recently an at-home HIV test was approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).”
Barbara Faison recognized those who came to the courthouse steps Saturday evening, and those who have come to the steps on Dec. 1, year in and year out. One day, the vigil will not be a somber tribute and a call for hope and action, she said. One day, it will be mark the celebration of success over a deadly disease.
“Some day there will be a cure and we can stop holding candlelight vigils,” said Faison, “but until that happens, we will come out here every year.”
The Rev. Ernest Fryar urged increase attendance so that Saturday’s crowd of a dozen or more people might double and triple until that time comes. It was important that support is shown so any stigma might be set aside for the greater good or future generations, he said.
“I have had some friends and some neighbors that have died of AIDS,” Fryar said. “Let us continue to show love to them no matter what the circumstances, and lift up the names of those who have gone before us.”
The Sampson County Board of Commissioners proclaimed Dec. 1 as World AIDS Day in Sampson County, a proclamation that was personally delivered by commissioner Albert Kirby.
“HIV and AIDS is a harsh, unfair affliction,” said Kirby, prior to reading the proclamation. “But like all harsh, unfair afflictions faced by the human population, it can and will be conquered, as long as we do as we are today, and gather together to educate others. I know it will be conquered.”
The county board, the proclamation states, “urges all citizens to take part in activities and observances designed to increase awareness and understanding of AIDS as a global challenge, to take part in HIV/AIDS prevention programs and to join the global efforts to prevent the further spread of HIV/AIDS. The global impact necessitates a worldwide effort to increase communication, education and united action to stop the transmission of HIV/AIDS.”
The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) observes World AIDS Day each year, a day to expand and strengthen worldwide efforts to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. It provides a time to renew and rejuvenate efforts and direct attention on a disease that has claimed 25 million lives and will claim many more.
“World AIDS Day provides an opportunity to focus local, national and international attention on HIV infection and AIDS and to disseminate information on how to prevent the spread of HIV,” Kirby read.
McLaughlin knows too well how important it is to fight that battle and raise that awareness each and every day, not only on the first day of December.
“Let us all fight together for an AIDS-free generation,” said McLaughlin. “By working together, we can get free of this terrible epidemic.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.