It was the early 1980s, and Damon Willow was a 20-year-old living in New York City. He remembers his friends becoming infected with HIV, and in 1985 he found the courage to be tested and learned what he had suspected all along. He, too, was HIV positive.
Twenty years later, at 42, Willow looks healthy and at peace. “I found my equilibrium,” he said.
Willow, who volunteers for the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network of Central Missouri as a massage therapist, was among 250 people who gathered at Courthouse Square on Saturday morning for the 11th Annual Salute to Life Walk.
“AIDS isn’t the flavor of the month anymore; people tend to forget about it,” said Carren Summerfield, who has been involved in promoting sexual education since the HIV scare first hit 20 years ago and has worked as director of prevention at RAIN since last March.
Awareness isn’t the only issue. Treatment costs an average of $1,000 per month, said Cale Mitchell, a RAIN care manager. Although drugs have been developed to help those with HIV live longer, regular health checks are important and add another layer of cost for patients.
Money raised by the march — $20,014 — will help cover medical expenses for people who are HIV positive.
The number of HIV and AIDS cases in Boone County was 277 at the end of 2002 compared with 219 cases in 1997. Of 614 cases in the 33-county north-central region that includes Boone County, 416 were diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 39, the state department of health reports.
“The new generation of young adults might not see the reality of the disease now and engage in high-risk behavior,” RAIN Executive Director Mindy Mulkey said.
In 2002, blacks in the north-central region showed an HIV case rate 11.4 times higher than whites while only making up 5 percent of the population. Of the 277 Boone County cases, 68 were blacks.
Social stigma still keeps some people from getting tested and perpetuates stereotypes, Mulkey said. “Particularly in rural areas, AIDS is only seen as related to drug users and gays, so that it’s not very acceptable to even question your health in that respect,” she said.
The health department performed 2,000 tests in 2003, and in June will launch a test that uses a finger stick and provides the result in half an hour.