As rush hour traffic crawled through downtown Columbia Wednesday evening, white flags with the insignia of a red ribbon flapped in the breeze as a reminder of those who died from AIDS.
Outside Uprise Bakery on Broadway, Columbia resident Brenda Flowers spoke to a crowd of roughly 30 people about what it means to be HIV positive. Flowers’ speech followed a thirty minute candlelight vigil and a musical performance of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” by Andrea Sanderson of St. Louis.
Flowers said she came to terms with her condition after leaving a life of drugs and violence.
“First off, I would like to say that I’m living with HIV, not dying from it,” Flowers said. “HIV is a disease that is all the more harmful when it is not faced, something that I was guilty of for far too long.”
The event, sponsored by the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network or RAIN, was part of the 17th annual World AIDS Day, a global reflection on the impact of the communicable epidemic.
The occasion also commemorates advancements made in the struggle against AIDS and addresses the remaining challenges posed by the disease.
The theme of this year’s observance was “Women, Girls, HIV and AIDS.”
About 20 years ago, AIDS was far more common among males. According to UNAIDS, nearly half of all new AIDS victims are female.
It has been found that young women are three times more susceptible to HIV infection than males. In the United States, AIDS is the leading cause of death for black women aged 25 to 34.
“Education is the key,” Flowers said. “I’ve made it my goal to reach out to as many people as I can, particularly women and children. Also, for those recently diagnosed as HIV positive, I want you to know that you’ve got a friend in me.”
Brad Hall, Chief of Communicable Disease Prevention and Care in Missouri, said 413 Missourians are infected with HIV. Boone County accounts for 197 of these cases. Since 1982, close to 15,000 people in Missouri have been diagnosed as HIV positive.
Hall said he believes this year’s theme is most appropriate.
“Although more HIV and AIDS sufferers are male, significant shifts have occurred over the course of the last 20 years, as minorities and women have been disproportionately affected by this epidemic,” he said.
UNAIDS estimates 95 percent of people afflicted with HIV and AIDS live in developing nations.
However, Carren Summerfield, director of prevention education for RAIN, said the disease remains a severe threat to people of all ages and nationalities.
“Although Missouri and the rest of the U.S. has lower rates of HIV infection than non-industrialized countries, it remains a serious problem on the domestic front,” she said.
“It has been predicted that there is such complacency about it right now that a substantial number of unsuspecting teenagers will be diagnosed with AIDS within the next ten years or so.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides Missouri with $3.9 million per year for HIV prevention programs. Federal funding yields another $10.2 million per year to the state for treatment of those who have already been infected with HIV.
If one has reason to believe that he or she has contracted HIV, testing sites include the Boone County Health Department and the RAIN headquarters in Columbia.
“I would recommend that anyone who has been exposed to blood or bodily fluids, primarily through unprotected sex, intravenous drug use or tattoos, undergo one of these tests,” Hall said. “If not for your own sake, then someone else’s.”