COLUMBIA — “AIDS is often a story told by numbers,” said Liz Andrews, an intern for HIV resource center Rain-Central Missouri, Inc. “But statistics can numb. They can hide the individuals.”
Andrews included many statistics in her speech at a remembrance service Wednesday to recognize the 23rd annual World AIDS Day, like the fact that one in five people who have HIV don’t know it. The focus of Columbia's events was to raise awareness and remember those who have been lost to AIDS.
Representatives from Rain, Trail to a Cure, MU's Sexual Health Advocate Peer Education (SHAPE) group, the MU Student Health Center and the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services organized the day's events.
“We all came together because there is a general acknowledgment that World AIDS Day is about focusing on the epidemic, and we all have such similar goals,” said Cale Mitchell, executive director of Rain. “It made sense for us to pool our resources and bring together our voice.”
The first World AIDS Day was held Dec. 1, 1988, and it has been marked on the same day every year, according to worldaidsday.org. Mitchell said Rain has been involved with organizing Columbia's events for the past 19 years.
Every year there is a different theme, and this year’s message was “Stop AIDS — Keep the Promise — ‘Universal Access and Human Rights.’” Keeping the promise refers to governments’ pledges to take action on HIV and AIDS in the areas of leadership, prevention, care and support, treatment and human rights.
Free HIV testing was offered at Rain’s offices and in Stotler Lounge in Memorial Union on MU’s campus. The HIV testing was a success, with a record number of 92 tests, Mitchell said.
People also decorated cookies and created patches for an MU AIDS Day quilt, which will be donated to Rain and displayed in the organization’s offices.
Some created a patch in remembrance of a loved one who was affected by HIV or AIDS, while others simply wanted to show their support.
“I am a fine arts major here at MU, and AIDS is an important issue so I figured I’d put my skills toward something significant,” said freshman Ian Humbertson.
A major part of World AIDS Day is about raising awareness to help prevent the spread of HIV. According to UNAIDS, in 2009 there were 2.6 million new infections, in comparison to the 3.1 million new infections in 1999.
Events held in the evening included a remembrance service and a candlelight procession from A.P. Green Chapel on MU’s campus to the intersection of Ninth Street and Broadway, where the final candlelight vigil was held.
The Rev. Heather Morgan from Columbia Hope Church spoke at the service. Her story had a more personal tone as her uncle died of AIDS. She described her visit to Washington, D.C., where she saw the AIDS Memorial Quilt displayed on the National Mall.
“For me, it was a surreal experience as I walked from square to square,” Morgan said. “There was a quiet reverence among all the visitors. There were tears, there were hugs, there were kisses. I still get shivers talking about it.”
Kevin Clohessy, a board member of Trail to a Cure, was focused on spreading awareness. The Columbia-based organization he serves supports the HIV and AIDS effort with both research funding and direct service.
Clohessy said the most important part of the night was generating discussion about the cause.
“Maybe somewhere a boundary will be broken down and someone will talk about a subject they otherwise wouldn’t have. If two people are walking back from lunch and one says, 'What are those?' we have accomplished something," Clohessy said of the white flags, each decorated with a red ribbon, that lined Eighth Street. Clohessy said Rain uses the flags several times a year to promote awareness.
Columbia resident Dean Anderson attended simply to remember.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends to AIDS," he said. "I just want to memorialize them.”