Events promote AIDS awareness on campus

About 50 GW students took advantage of free HIV testing in the Marvin Center Saturday, as the rest of campus wrapped up a week of events to increase awareness about the disease.

Campus groups commemorated AIDS Awareness Week, which included World AIDS Day Dec. 2, with 11 events including a date auction and panels with celebrities such as former “Party of Five” star Scott Wolf and international experts. Organizers reported overwhelming crowds and turned students away from some packed events designed to call attention to an issue that has lost focus since Sept. 11.

“There is a growing thought that AIDS is gone or a treatable disease, especially among college students,” said Jason Franklin, chair of the GW AIDS Awareness Committee.

More than 20 organizations, including the Office of Community Service, Neighbor’s Project, GW College Democrats and the Human Services student organization sponsored activities designed to educate students about AIDS and safe sex in the U.S. city with the highest AIDS rate.

The Washington Free Clinic, a D.C. facility that provides medical assistance for people without insurance, set up appointments with students for anonymous oral swab tests and counseling sessions Saturday, which designated by the United Nations as World AIDS Day.

Students will pick up the results Dec. 13 in the Marvin Center.

Students also assembled condoms, lubricants and literature into “safe sex kits” for the Sexual Minority Youth Action League, a group that focuses on gay, lesbian and transgender youth.

More than 7,000 AIDS patients ages 10-24 are infected daily in the United States from sickness related to the disease, which attacks the immune system, according to a U.N. Web site. Metropolitan Police report on their Web site that 90 percent of patients do not know they are HIV positive.

Thomas McClure directs a hotline sponsored by the Whitman Walker Clinic, a non-profit health organization servicing the D.C. HIV and AIDS community. He told 20 audience members Saturday to be more aware of the AIDS epidemic and urged people to become active in AIDS awareness.

An instructor for 19 years, McClure has been living with the virus for 16 years. He contracted HIV in 1985 and was diagnosed with AIDS in 1994.

“The District has the highest HIV rate in the nation,” McClure said. “It is 12 times above the national average. One out of every 25 individuals has HIV.”

He said donations and funding to AIDS organizations has severely decreased since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Money for HIV was always on the backburner, and it’s become even more on the backburner since September 11,” McClure said. “Our donations are down 73 percent from this time last year.”

The Organization of African Students raised $1,000 for AIDS relief in Africa at a date auction Friday night in the Marvin Center. The group turned some students away at the door. The event was packed with about 160 people who bid on dates with OAS members.

Vice President of the OAS Mohammed Alkharusi said nearly 20 percent of Africa is infected with AIDS and that the disease is an issue people need to focus on. He said the group has not yet decided which charity the money will go to.

“AIDS originated in Africa, and we are just trying to help out,” he said.

More than 200 students and community members attended Thursday’s town hall meeting hosted by the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which was forced to deny about 50 students who wanted a seat in the full Marvin Center third-floor amphitheater.

Moderated by former Miss America Kate Shindle, eight panelists included Wolf and “The West Wing”‘s Kim Webster, physicians, government officials and AIDS counselors from the National Institutes of Health and South Africa.

Shindle said 13- to 24-year-olds makes up the fastest growing group of AIDS victims in the United States

While many attendees said they came to see Wolf, a GW alumnus, others, like freshman Heather Sand, said they want to help lower the AIDS rate among their age group. The panel was Webcasted on the Elizabeth Glazer Web site.

“I think the school needs to get more involved,” Sand said.

Wolf said Hollywood could do a better job in terms of taking responsibility of promoting safe sex, noting films and television shows which show couples engaging in sexual activity without protection.

“On the one hand it’s entertainment in art form. It has an obligation to entertain,” he said. “On the other hand there is some sense of moral responsibility.”

Webster’s adopted 12-year-old brother has AIDS.

“It all of a sudden hit home for a lot of people,” Webster said referring to the reaction of her neighbors when her brother Ricky was diagnosed with AIDS. “They knew somebody who knew somebody who had AIDS.”

South African AIDS Counselor Florence Ngobeni, who is HIV positive, said she was not aware of drugs available that prevent the transference of the virus to children. Her child died of AIDS complications shortly after birth.

Panelist Ben Banks shared what he has learned from his experience being HIV positive. He said he has been fortunate that he has not shown outward signs of the virus.

“HIV doesn’t discriminate,” said Banks, a James Madison University student who contracted the disease from a blood transfusion while suffering from cancer as a child.

Scott Evertz, director of the Office of National AIDS policy, silenced the audience by citing that five young people are infected with HIV every minute, meaning about 7,200 young people contracted HIV Thursday while GW students were attending classes or meeting friends at J Street.

Banks lifted the mood by smiling and adding, “Everybody has trials in their life. If you approach it with a positive attitude, you will learn from the experience and life will be wonderful.”

“We should keep fighting the fight against AIDS. We need to be strong as a nation,” Evertz said, noting that the country should continue the war against AIDS during the war on terrorism.

Neighbor’s Project volunteers Deepti Tanuk and Stacy Markman worked with the AIDS Awareness Committee, Office of Community Service, College Democrats and the Human Service Student Organization since October to organize the week’s events.

-Trevor Martin contributed to this report.

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