Students give voice to millions suffering from HIV/AIDS

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Tonia Osby traveled half way across the country to give a voice to the 3 million people who die each year of AIDS-nearly half of which are between ages 15 and 24.

She was one of about 4,000 students from 120 schools who marched from the White House to the Capitol on Saturday to call on the government to thwart the HIV/AIDS crisis at home and abroad.

Organizers said they originally hoped to draw 8,000 students to represent the number of young people who are infected daily, as well as the 8,000 people worldwide who die from the disease each day. However, Bob Elliot, co-founder of the Student Global AIDS Campaign, said this is the largest rally the group has ever organized, and he was pleased with a turnout that highlighted the “youth to youth link.”

“It is the crisis of our generation with more than 50 percent of new infections hitting people ages 15 to 24,” Elliott said.

Osby, a freshman at DePaul University in Chicago, said she hopes her advocacy work brings attention for access to science-based education, promoting safe sex in addition to abstinence, as a way to prevent HIV/AIDS infections.

Last month, President George W. Bush allocated $206 million in his budget for the coming year to states for abstinence-only sexual education programs. One week later, Congress introduced the Realistic Education About Life (REAL) Act which would create a grant program to award the same amount per year to states for comprehensive sexual education programs.

“You can’t expect everyone to follow the same regimen,” Osby said. “It’s not realistic to people. You have to give people options.”

Marchers also called for the U.S. to contribute $1.5 billion to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, and reauthorize the Ryan White CARE Act, which provides healthcare for Americans living with HIV and AIDS, Elliott said.

Mark Bezilla, a sophomore from Pennsylvania State University, said he decided to come to the rally after one of the speakers, a 25-year-old HIV positive activist, lectured in his class about two weeks ago. Bezilla said he had never met anyone infected with the virus before, but has since developed a friendship with the activist.

“It was just the emotion he put into me,” Bezilla said. “He’s no different than you or I, or anyone here.”

In addition to the march, the SGAC hosted an education summit on Sunday, and planned to lobby in the Senate and House of Representatives on Monday. While the lobby day was canceled due to inclement weather, Elliott said about 35 people went to Capitol Hill.

Elliott said rallying strengthens lobbying efforts because many people working at the Capitol have heard about the earlier crowd when lobbyers approach them. He said that the staffers’ understanding that all of the students cared “gives you a lot more significant weight.”

“I think what’s important to consider is you take a comprehensive approach to advocacy,” Elliott said.

Emma Simson, SGAC co-chapter leader at the University of Maryland, said while the weekend went “wonderfully,” she was especially inspired to see so many students marching behind her as she made her way from the White House to the Capitol.

Simson said, “We’ve just energized a whole new generation of activists and it’ll be really interesting to see where things go from here.”

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