Shannon Guillory knew people were dying but she didn't know why.
She was attending the University of Southern California. Signs saying "silence equals death" and "Ask questions - people are dying" stood like tombstones outside popular hangouts in West Hollywood. A restaurant kept a count board showing how many people had died of a mysterious gay men's disease.
It was in the early 1980s. There was no testing or medicine for AIDS. AIDS didn't have a name until 1982.
Twenty years have changed a lot.
AIDS is no longer a death-sentence disease. People know AIDS is not just a gay man's disease.
But the stigma and ignorance haven't changed much.
"People don't think a disease that big will affect our little community," said Guillory, executive director of Shanti of Southeast Alaska, a nonprofit that educates about AIDS and supports people living with AIDS.
The most recent comprehensive HIV infection study from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported an accumulative 892 cases by Dec. 31, 2002. Southeast Alaska had 61 cases.
On average, 40 HIV/AIDS cases are newly diagnosed per year.
The report pointed to an alarming trend: Although only four or five Alaska women are newly diagnosed with HIV each year, the proportion of female cases increased from 16 percent to 38 percent.
AIDS testing, info
Shanti, 110 S. Seward St., Suite 5. 463-5665
Juneau Public Health Center, 3412 Glacier Highway. 465-3353
Front Street Clinic, 225 Front St., 463-4201
Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association, 586-6089
24-hour hotline: 1-800-478-AIDS
"The primary factor for women to be infected is to have unprotected sex with a man. The second factor is to share needles," said Penny Cordes, public health specialist with the state's HIV/STD program.
Cheryl Loudermilk, case manager of Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association in Juneau, said some of her clients are heterosexual women in a committed relationship.
"They don't go to bars. They don't use drugs. They are in a monogamous relationship," Loudermilk said. "Despite these, the virus is diffused in the community. They may not get it from their current partner but they might get it from their former partners."
Guillory, who has done many AIDS prevention classes for youth services, said she was surprised that people are not just ignorant about AIDS but sexually transmitted diseases in general.
"They don't know they can get chlamydia, hepatitis and crabs and many other diseases through unprotected sex," Guillory said.
Guillory urges people to inspect their partners as "carefully as a cheeseburger."
"When you are in a restaurant, do you check if the cheeseburger has the tomato and pickles you asked? Do you check if the meat is raw or medium?" Guillory asked. "Turn on the light. Ask questions."
Guillory has lost many friends to AIDS.
"I don't want to lose more to a disease that is 100 percent preventable," Guillory said.
I-Chun Che can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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