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VOL. 126 | NO. 236 | Monday, December 5, 2011

Memphians Observe World AIDS Day

By Aisling Maki

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A procession of red rice paper sky lanterns delicately floated into an orange sky over Tom Lee Park in Downtown Memphis Thursday, Dec. 1, as the sun descended on the Mississippi River.

The Le Bonheur Community HIV Network and others gathered at Tom Lee Park on Thursday evening to Observe World AIDS Day by releasing “sky wish” lanterns to acknowledge the impact of HIV/AIDS in the Mid-South. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

In observance of World AIDS Day, the lanterns were lit and released in honor of Memphians who’ve been infected and affected by HIV and AIDS.

“It means the world to me simply because this is a night when we get a chance to recognize those who’ve lost their battle with this disease, but it also gives us a chance to recognize people who are living with it,” said Mildred Richard, peer advocate for the Le Bonheur Community HIV Network, which hosted the event in partnership with the Riverfront Development Corp. “Not many people are brave enough to come out and say, ‘Hey, I have HIV.’ So, to me, this is kind of like releasing the doves; it’s giving them the chance to be who they are.”

At the end of 2009, UNAIDS estimated that there are 33 million people around the world living with HIV/AIDS, and 1.2 million of those are in the U.S.

Each Dec. 1, cities around the globe commemorate the day by encouraging public support and programming to prevent the spread of HIV infection, providing awareness and education about HIV/AIDS, and demonstrating compassion for those infected or affected by the virus.

Le Bonheur Community HIV Network serves Memphis area HIV-positive women, children and youth, providing medical care, support services, outreach and testing.

The network receives financial support through Ryan White HIV/AIDS funds from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration and the HIV/AIDS Bureau. Ryan White funds are available to those who cannot afford care.

Richard has been living with the disease for more than a decade. As a peer advocate, she provides support for newly diagnosed patients, typically women and children.

“My job is to make sure they have help getting through this,” she said. “It’s a big system and sometimes you can get lost. With me being an HIV-positive woman myself, I’m able to direct them to where they need to go and build a rapport with them.”

In recent years, mother-to-child HIV transmission in the United States has been virtually eliminated through antiretroviral drugs, safe delivery practices and other preventive measures.

“But we’re still seeing a rise in our numbers as far as our youth ages 13 to 24 and African-American women,” Richard said. “We still have people being infected daily. We’ve implemented HIV testing in the surrounding ERs and we’re finding positives almost daily.”

More than 7,000 men, women and children in Shelby County are living with HIV/AIDS.

According to figures from the Shelby County Health Department, about 80 percent of those infected with HIV/AIDS locally are African-American, and about half of all local people who are infected are not receiving the care they need.

Visit www.hivmemphis.org to learn more.

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