Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, November 30, 1998

HIV/STD Advisory Council creates prevention through awareness


Since its formation 10 years ago, the HIV/STD Advisory Council has had a simple strategy in combating AIDS: education leads to prevention.

Since its creation by the Minnesota Department of Health, the council has produced yearly events based on what it saw as the county's need for more information to prevent the spread of a perilous disease.

While this year's event has not been decided upon, the council has promoted the proclamation of December 1 as World AIDS Day. As such, a number of McLeod County mayors have officially made World AIDS Day a reality in their communities, including Lester Prairie and Winsted.

Jene Johnson, a member of the council and a McLeod County public health educator, lauds the mayors for this step: "It's a big deal for them because they're putting themselves out on the flag pole. It takes a lot of courage."

Such an action though begs the question of whether HIV and AIDS is a big concern in McLeod County.

Johnson admits that while Minnesota is a relatively low incidence state, "It's a disease that is a community health issue, and as a community, we need to address it."

While the numbers are low - about 10-11 individuals infected in the area - Johnson worries that they are too low in her opinion.

The figure is obtained from the state department of health, which requires the report of any person infected by HIV to determine the potential number of AIDS cases.

Johnson sees the problem is in how the number is gathered.

"The way they get that number is where you were living at the time you tested positive. So they (HIV+ persons) may have been living in Minneapolis, but moved home."

She says that movement is not reflected in the estimation. In fact, she believes the numbers may actually be higher.

Much of that opinion comes from work done by the Rural AIDS Action Network (RAAN). As an organization that "exists to organize, develop and sustain caring volunteer communities that serve and support persons living with, affected by, or at risk for HIV/AIDS in the rural midwest," RAAN use by members of the community is a reflection of demand for services and care.

They report that between July and September 1998, 20 new persons living with AIDS called upon them for services, and that they had served a separate, previously-known 24 persons.

While those figures are state wide, the council still sees a need for prevention.

"Living in rural Minnesota is not an immunization from risky behavior," Johnson said.

Moreover, she sees this as a concern for rural adolescents who live with the same social problems endemic to the metro area.

Defining AIDS

The first step in AIDS is HIV, which is the name for the virus.

HIV infects the bloodstream and can lay dormant for month or years depending on the body's ability to resist it, according to Johnson. During this time, the infected person may have no indication that he/she is HIV-positive.

HIV infects the white blood cells known as T-helper cells. The T-cell, describes Johnson, is "sort of like the quarterback for a football team. It tells your body's immune system 'you need to fight this disease over here.'"

When the virus infects such a cell, it changes the DNA of the cell to actually produce the HIV virus. It is only when an individual has fewer than 200 T-Cells that he/she is considered to have AIDS. People in general have 1,500 to 2,000 T-cells.

Awareness becomes key in the fact that much can be done for an individual who is HIV-positive if the virus is detected early.

Oftentimes, anti-viral treatments can be administered to slow or even stop the spread of the virus. In the case of pregnant women who are HIV-positive, the risk of passing the virus to the fetus can be reduced from a 50/50 chance to just 7 percent.

The taboo of AIDS

At times, the attempts to create awareness have come with resistance.

In 1990, The HIV/STD Advisory Council brought a play to a high school in Hutchinson. Entitled "Amazing Grace," the play portrayed a character who was diagnosed with HIV.

According to Johnson, "At that time, people's response to HIV was pretty strong." The performance was picketed and letters to the editor appeared condemning the play and the inappropriateness of the title.

Johnson observes that the attitude towards discussing AIDS, even when it pertains to young adults, has changed. Concerning the council's efforts to inform the community, she says, "People have come to see the programs that we offer as an opportunity for more education, not as a pulpit from which we preach what people should or shouldn't do."

However, she remains concerned that scrutiny of how the virus is contracted will discourage people from testing. She believes communities must focus not on how it was contracted, but on the disease itself.

The programs that the council provides have also changed.

The concentration is now on informing professionals, be they medical, dental, educational, or even employers.

The hope is that by providing those people with support and information, they will pass on assistance to their communities.

Johnson believes that the mayoral proclamations do just that.

"I think it raises awareness and I believe it gives a stamp of importance," she said.

Also, World AIDS Day will be accompanied by two area events. Lester Prairie High School will host a speaker, Susie Dougherty, who will address the upperclassmen.

Dougherty will also speak at Ridgewater College in Hutchinson at 11 a.m.Wednesday, Dec. 2. The public is invited to attend that program.

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