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World AIDS Day event a reminder that the epidemic is still with us

Posted: November 30, 2012 - 1:07am
Candles decorate the Baranof Hotel conference room as the Juneau Pride Chorus sings for the World AIDS Day event in 2011.  Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Candles decorate the Baranof Hotel conference room as the Juneau Pride Chorus sings for the World AIDS Day event in 2011.

Here in our little town, AIDS can be as far from our minds as Africa is from Juneau, but tomorrow Four A’s invites Juneau residents to attend a candlelight vigil to remember how close it really is.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus attacks the immune system and is most commonly transmitted by unprotected sex, with sharing needles coming in at close second. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome is the most advanced stage of HIV, when the immune system is so weak opportunistic infections take hold, or when the healthy immune system cells drop to a certain low point or the amount of HIV infected cells reaches a certain high point. Since 1982, more than 1,200 individuals have been diagnosed with HIV in Alaska.

This information and much more is available through Alaskan Aids Assistance Association, a nonprofit group with the motto “It’s all about life.” Four A’s lists its mission as “to be a key collaborator within the state of Alaska in the provision of supportive services to persons living with HIV/AIDS and their families and int he elimination of the transmission of HIV infection and its stigma.”

In Juneau, the face of the organization is Phoebe Rohrbacher who, after years working with clients with developmental disabilities, took over the role of Southeast Services Coordinator in April of this year.

“I’m really interested in working with marginalized populations,” Rohrbacher said in an interview Wednesday, “I worked with people with developmental disabilities before coming to the Four A’s… I feel like people with HIV/AIDS and those at risk for HIV/Aids are often marginalized. But they deserve medical treatment and compassion and care as much as anybody else in the community. So I suppose that’s why I’m doing it.”

People with HIV/AIDS are often marginalized out of fear and lack of good information.

“People often times don’t understand what bodily fluids can transmit HIV, so I find myself often having to explain that.” Rohrbacher said.

HIV is not spread through saliva, tears or sweat. Even open mouth kissing is considered very low risk, according to information provided by the organization. HIV is also not spread through casual activities like holding hands or hugging, sharing drinks or sitting on toilet seats.

Rohrbacher provided a rainbow assortment of handouts on everything from frequently asked questions about HIV/Aids to a fact sheets on testing and incidence in different population groups, as well as a pamphlet detailing the resources offered by Four A’s.

Though some groups show higher rates of HIV than others, it is not limited to those groups.

“I think there’s a misconception that HIV only affects certain groups of people — we like to say it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.” And that’s why education about prevention is a big part of her job with Four A’s.

Education efforts go beyond handing out leaflets, with Rohrbacher teaching classes on prevention to high risk groups at locations including the prison, Gastineau Human Services and Rainforest Recovery.

Beyond education, Four A’s provides prevention services, case management for individuals with HIV/AIDS, services to maintain stability in the lives of individuals with HIV/AIDS, access to mental health counseling, housing and other assistance.

“We try to equip people with the knowledge, the information and materials to make their choices as safe as possible.” Rohrbacher said. “There are a number of ways to lower those risks.”

She is also able to administer HIV testing with the OraQuick test.

“We have the OraQuick test, which is a rapid HIV test, it’s a mouth swab — no blood draws necessary.” Rohrbacher said, excited to be able to offer fast and accurate testing free of charge right at the Four A’s office, located on Franklin Street, above the Heritage Cafe. “You can swab your mouth and I can give you the results in 20 minutes.”

The test, Rohrbacher said, is quite accurate, detecting HIV antibodies in saliva or blood — the antibodies will likely not show up for three months after contracting HIV, so a test three to six months after a high risk behavior is recommended. A preliminary positive result calls for further testing, but a negative result during the proper time window should elicit and instant sigh of relief.

Four A’s hosts a few events in Juneau each year — a fun and flamboyant drag show fundraiser and the World AIDS Day vigil are the main events.

The organization also showed a documentary film at the Gold Town Theater Tuesday night.

“The movie we showed (Tuesday) night, How to Survive a Plague, highlighted the history of HIV and AIDS,” Rohrbacher said, “I think a lot of times people remember the crisis that happened, when HIV was first discovered, so it’s easy to think it’s not an issue anymore, but there are still, like I say, so many people living with HIV and AIDS, in our state, we have people living in our town, in Southeast, living with HIV and AIDS. It’s very important to remember that this is something that does affect our community, and people need to recognize what the risk factors are and keep themselves safe.”

The film showing was a preliminary event leading up to World AIDS Day tomorrow, a world wide day of remembrance held every Dec. 1, since 1988. The vigil, beginning at 6 p.m. in the Franklin Street Gallery in the Baranof Hotel, will include a reading of the names of 300 Alaskans who have died of AIDS related causes, with candles being lit in their honor. Larger candles will also be lit to represent people who have died, or who are living with HIV, throughout the world. Sue Bahleda of Resurrection Lutheran Church will speak and Steve Hamilton will play a song.

“It’s a somber event, a candlelight vigil, it’s almost a memorial service for those people who have died.” Rohrbacher said of the event tomorrow. “It’s a chance to remember the people you know who have died, as well as to remember that this is a disease that has spread all over the world and affects millions of people around the world. There will be World AIDS day events all over the world on Dec. 1 and I like the idea that, all over the world, people will be having candlelight vigils, and I think it’s powerful to hear the names and to put a name with the statistics.”

For more information on the event, Four A’s or HIV/AIDS please visit www.alaksanaids.org, call 586-6089, or find Four A’s on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AlaskanAIDS .

• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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