Giannina L. Garces Ambrossi

Monday, December 4

WASHINGTON–In Lafayette Park on Friday, hundreds of people, most of them students, commemorated the 19th annual World AIDS Day with the message “WE ALL HAVE AIDS!” scrawled on T-shirts and posters. The concept that everyone in our society is infected with AIDS highlighted the official theme of this year’s memorial: personal and collective accountability in the effort to stop this global health crisis.

The Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC) sponsored the AIDS awareness rally to demand the federal government implement the group’s four-pronged strategy of AIDS prevention and treatment: increasing the number of skilled healthcare workers in Africa by investing $8 billion in training over 5 years; decreasing the number of new HIV infections in Washington, D.C., by allowing the funding of needle exchange programs (which is regulated by Congress); increasing international access to HIV/AIDS treatment by modifying international trade laws for drugs; and increasing overall funding for international HIV/AIDS efforts by fully funding the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria and forgiving the debt burden of all impoverished countries.

Approximately 400 undergraduates, medical students, and community activists gathered from across the country to chant, cheer, and demonstrate despite windy, dreary weather. They attracted a sizeable crowd of passers-by, which Laura Hawks, a student at Fordham University in New York, attributed to the “energy, passion, and enthusiasm unique to student activists.”

Matthew Kavanaugh, the Executive Director of SGAC’s parent organization, Global Justice, led a processional towards the White House, with a set of call/response chants of “When people with AIDS are under attack, what do we do? Act up, fight back!”

Lavi Ramchandani, a 19-year-old student at the University of Maryland College Park, was part of a group 22 students who “sat-in” on the sidewalk in front of the White House gates. She dressed as a needle, with an antenna spiking from a headband of aluminum foil, to demand funding for needle exchange programs. As she walked onto the sidewalk, Ramchandani explained that she felt “nervous [about the demonstration], but also more empowered than I’ve ever felt.” All 22 students on the sidewalk were arrested. As each was arrested, their fellow activists called out their names while cheering and clapping. The arrested students in turn responded to the chants from the crowd as they were carried off: “Act up, fight back!”

Ramchandani told Campus Progress she hoped the rally would “inspire our peers to stand up and make a difference. If we pressure [the politicians], they will hear us and they will change.”

The SGAC also hoped the rally would shake students out of “complacency, out of a culture of fear and stigmatization [of AIDS],” said Amye Greene, a former Campus Progress intern who is now the national organizer of the Student Campaign for Child Survival, another organization under the umbrella of Global Justice. Many students said they felt their American peers were generally well-educated about the existence of HIV, but still felt somewhat immune to infection themselves. Lily Walkover, from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, described a growing belief that “[HIV] happens, but not here.” This notion is belied by the fact that about half of all new HIV infections in the United States occur in people under the age of 25. To counteract this myth of “otherness,” colleges like Wesleyan University, the University of Maryland at College Park, and George Washington University held “AIDS Awareness” weeks leading up to World AIDS Day, with public speakers, free HIV testing, condom distribution, and educational sessions.

Mimi Mellas, a University of Maryland student and National Student Coordinator for SGAC, spoke at the rally about the history of AIDS, noting that today’s college students were born after the identification of HIV as the causative agent of AIDS. Extending the metaphor, Mellas said, “I have had AIDS all my life–we have all had AIDS all our lives. It is our duty to continue the fight that began with the [first case] of AIDS.”

Five Facts About AIDS Today:

In the United States, more than half of all new HIV-positive patients are under 25.

HIV is infecting young people more than the general population: Young people account for more than half of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States each year.

The majority of U.S. men and women have never had an HIV test.

Less than 50 percent of women and less than 30 percent of men know their HIV status.

One of four people who are HIV-positive in the United States do not even know it.

A 2003 study showed that 24 to 27 percent of people who carry the AIDS virus don’t know they have HIV.

Comprehensive sex education effectively prevents pregnancy and STDs in adolescents. Abstinence-only sex ed doesn’t.

A 2005 review from the American Psychological Association showed that comprehensive sex ed not only increased safe sex practices for sexually active adolescents, it also delayed the onset of sex among inexperienced adolescents and promoted safe sex during the first and subsequent sexual experiences–as opposed to abstinence-only programs, which led to adolescents being more likely to forgo protection during their first and subsequent sexual experiences.

Research shows that needle exchange programs (1) don’t increase drug use, and (2) can decrease HIV risk.

A 2006 study from Chicago’s Needle Exchange Program showed that IV drug users in their program actually stopped injecting for an average of almost a year and a half–a crucial window of opportunity for permanent rehab given in conjunction with the needle exchange program.

A 2006 report from the Institute of Medicine reviewed the available literature studying needle exchange programs and their efficacy. They found that when programs with condom distribution and HIV education also included needle exchange, drug users decreased their drug-associated HIV risk behaviors.

Giannina L. Garces Ambrossi is a third-year medical student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. This fall she is researching stem cell bioethics through the Aaron Foundation Internship Program at the Center for American Progress.