Many to participate in area’s annual walk Sunday
Alix Arnold (center, with glasses, standing) persuaded her friends to participate in the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation AIDSWALK in 2007. From left are: Kevin McClarren, Jesskah Wiggins, Alayna Flores, Amanda Finkelstein, Arnold, Sarah Collin (seated), Maxie Adler, Mike Sands, Brittney Marimow, Taylor Williams, Sam Scott and Lisa Ayers.
Alix Arnold hadn’t been born when the first wave of AIDS swept the country, but she has made it her mission to educate her friends about the disease.
The 16-year-old Ironwood Ridge High School student will participate Sunday for the third straight year in the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation AIDSWALK.
As she did in 2007, she encouraged her friends to join her.
“We are the next generation and we are going to find a cure,” Arnold said Thursday as she prepared to make T-shirts for the walk. “It’s going to be us as doctors. The earlier we get the message out, the more success we will probably have.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 55 percent of new AIDS cases are showing up in people under age 39. Fifteen percent of new cases are in people under age 24.
Arnold doesn’t know anyone who is HIV positive or has AIDS, nor does she feel as if she was taught much about the disease in school.
But she learned a lot from the education and prevention booths during her first walk and is among the growing number of young people spreading the word about AIDS to their peers.
Most teens have yet to get the message, Tucson-area educators said.
“At the high school level, there is a disconnect,” said Michele Bart, director of development for the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation. “That generation and the college generation did not go through the ’80s where they heard about it or were losing people to HIV. They don’t have the memories of that.”
Louis Ortega, the foundation’s director of prevention, said that as medical advances allow people with HIV and AIDS to live longer, society’s emphasis on the disease has changed.
“HIV and AIDS has gone back in the shadows,” he said. “It’s just not in your face any more.”
Ari Kelly of the Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network said that of the young people she talks to, most have heard about HIV, but know little about it. She said they seem to believe one of two things about HIV/AIDS:
• Once a person is diagnosed, he will die quickly.
• It’s not a big deal. If you get HIV or AIDS, you just take a pill and life doesn’t change.
Neither belief is true.
Drugs are helping HIV/AIDS patients to live longer, Bart said, but they are not taking just one pill.
“They are taking a cocktail of pills and most are taken to (counteract) the side effects, because the side effects are so hard on the body,” she said.
Ortega works with at-risk youths at Tucson alternative charter high schools as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths through the Wingspan- and SAAF-sponsored Eon Youth Program. Even in those groups he has found teens who are misinformed.
“They know you can get HIV by having unprotected sex,” he said, “but we still get questions about mosquitoes and kissing.”
Some youths have no information at all.
Kelly said she recently did a presentation on HIV for a group of recent college graduates.
“You think you’re telling them the same thing they’ve heard since fifth grade,” she said.
Still, she said, after the class one person wrote her, “I learned a lot. I’ve never been taught this before.”
In an effort to set the record straight, SAAF and TIHAN have established programs aimed at reaching youths with information not only about the basics of HIV and AIDS prevention, but also with information about risk and decision-making.
Programs at SAAF include HIV Youth Prevention Education, a leadership training; Eon, a lounge and support center for youth struggling with their sexual identity; and Voz, a health education program in Tucson’s charter schools. At TIHAN, Kelly runs an education program that offers seminars to area churches and their youth groups.
Over the summer about a dozen students from the Frank & Edith Morton Clubhouse of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson participated in SAAF’s first leadership training, which taught them about HIV and the immune system but ultimately trained them to be peer educators.
Victoria Martins, 17, said that before she took the training she knew HIV was a sexually transmitted disease, but didn’t fully understand the consequences of having HIV or AIDS.
Martins and the others, all part of a leadership group at the club called Keystone, now put on weekly presentations for classes and other Boys & Girls Clubs members around Tucson and will participate this year in AIDSWALK as volunteers guiding walkers along the route.
Their adviser, George Yslava, 23, is a former Keystone member who said the group’s yearly projects used to focus on issues like gangs and bullying. He said he’s benefited from the group’s new focus because he didn’t hear much about AIDS while growing up.
“I’m now able to educate my mom and my family,” he said.
Daniel Jones, 16, said the training has taught him to be careful around bodily fluids, such as blood from cuts.
“I truly thought it was just sexually transmitted,” Jones said.
Jones and Martins said they don’t hear much about HIV and AIDS in the media or at school. Most of the messages they get relate to drugs and alcohol, the two said.
Health education touches briefly on sexually transmitted diseases, they said. Jones said he has heard more about herpes than HIV.
“It isn’t being taught,” Jones said. “It should be a big priority.”
Because public schools are only allowed to teach about abstinence, Bart said, some students aren’t getting the message about how to protect themselves from HIV when they decide to have sex.
When SAAF staff members talk to students in the public school system, abstinence is the one option discussed, and Bart said by not discussing safe-sex options, part of the conversation is missing.
“We have to find very creative ways about reaching out and trying to find kids who want to get this information or are at risk because of a lack of information,” Bart said.
The Boys & Girls Clubs’ presentations also have to teach just abstinence, Yslava said. However, he said they will refer the teens to SAAF for further information.
For Martins, the abstinence message combined with what she learned through the leadership class and teaching others hit home and reconfirmed what she always thought about sex.
“I’m going to be abstinent,” she said. Her education has also made her realize that her future partner may not have made the same decision. “He is going to have to answer a lot of questions,” she said.
Daniel Jones,16, left, and Ty Smith,13, finish posters for Sunday's event.
Victoria Martins,17, and George Yslava, a Boys & Girls Clubs youth development specialist, work on posters for Sunday's AIDSWALK.
Giant red ribbons stand on the UA Mall during last year's AIDSWALK.
Averting HIV and AIDS, an international charity
A true/false quiz for teens to test their knowledge of HIV/AIDS
Eon Youth Program
Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation
Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network
Boys and Girls Clubs of Tucson
If you go
• What: 20th annual AIDSWALK
• Where: University of Arizona Mall. Participants are encouraged to use the Second Street or Cherry Avenue garages.
• When: Sunday; registration begins at 6:30 a.m. The 10K begins at 7 a.m. with the 5K beginning at 8:30 a.m.
• How much: Day-of-event registration is $25 for adults, $15 for youths in kindergarten to 12th grade.
Definition of terms related to HIV
HIV: Human immunodeficiency virus causes AIDS. HIV mostly attacks white blood cells.
AIDS: Acquired immune deficiency syndrome is a disease caused by HIV.
DNA: Deoxyribonucleic acid is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA.
Drug-resistant: When a drug for a specific illness is no longer effective.
AZT: The first drug approved for AIDS victims, in 1987. It is still in use, but in lower doses and in combination with other drugs.
The first AIDSWALK Tucson was held in 1988. About 100-200 people showed up and raised no more than $3,000.
The walk started as a Tucson AIDS Project event. The Tucson AIDS Project eventually merged with the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation.
The event has grown each year and in 2007, 5,500 people showed up and $232,000 was raised for SAAF. Around 6,000 are expected on Sunday. All the money raised at AIDSWALK stays in Pima County to pay for services for residents with HIV and AIDS and to fund prevention programs.
On Sunday, SAAF leaders will be encouraging participants to share their story as a “video story” which will later be used online and in education programs. Access Tucson has volunteered to videotape the stories. This is the first time that SAAF will ask participants to share their stories.
Michele Bart, SAAF director of development, said prevention and education booths are always a part of the annual walk, but this year some additional booths aimed at youth will be added and prevention messages will be prominent throughout the event.
Do you have questions about HIV/AIDS?
• Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, 628-7223
• Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network, 299-6647
• Eon Youth Program, 620-6245