December 01, 2005
World AIDS Day 2005 was commemorated on the St. John’s
University Queens campus at a December 1 symposium where the
origins, effects and impact of HIV/AIDS were chronicled by two
members of the St. John’s community who have witnessed the disease
“up close and personal.”
Professor John Conry, assistant clinical professor in Clinical
Pharmacy Practice in the College of Pharmacy and Allied Health
Professions and Jennifer Vacchio, communications manager at The Peter C. Tobin School of
Business, offered up their experiences assisting and
interacting with persons with HIV/AIDS here and abroad.
Since it was first isolated in 1983, the HIV virus has infected
60 million people globally, 20 million of whom have died from the
illness, Professor Conry explained in his presentation. He reeled
off current estimates of HIV/AIDS statistics which reveal that,
globally, 50 percent of HIV-infected individuals are 25 years old
or younger and that 50 percent of the HIV-infected population is
women. In addition to those infected with HIV, others are affected
by this devastating disease, particularly children. An estimated 12
million children have been orphaned in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
There were 3 million deaths in 2004 from AIDS, which is the fourth
leading cause of death around the world. Five million will be newly
infected in 2005, the vast majority of whom live in developing
countries, he told the audience.
“All continents are infected and affected,” the Pharmacy
professor said, although the numbers differ greatly from continent
to continent. Slightly over 1 million people are infected with
HIV/AIDS in the United States -- a milestone, he noted, adding that
the rate of new HIV infection is still generally the same as in
previous years but those infected are living longer due to better
treatment options. Sub-Saharan Africa is a whole different case:
about 25.4 million are HIV-infected. The huge difference in numbers
of infected on the two continents is even more devastating
considering that “in Africa, the infected often don’t have access
to the anti-HIV drugs or optimal medical care” available in the
United States and other developed countries.
The first anti-HIV drug was FDA-approved in 1987 and there are
currently more than 20 different anti-HIV medications available.
The use of potent combinations of HIV medications (commonly called
“HIV cocktails”) since the late 1990s has resulted in significant
improvement in helping those who are HIV-infected to live healthier
lives. Those who take their medications and follow other
appropriate lifestyle recommendations as directed by their
healthcare providers can live fairly healthy lives. The virus,
however, mutates often “outsmarting the drugs, especially if
patients miss their doses of medications.” This, he said, can make
HIV treatment difficult. “It’s impossible to predict how long the
anti-HIV drugs extend lives because we are not even 15 years out
[in our experience with cocktails of drugs.”
In a second presentation, Jennifer Vacchio of The Tobin College
of Business, related how, in May 2004, she had overheard a
conversation about an orphanage in Ghana that cared for children
whose parents had died of AIDS. Having a strong desire to help
children and considerable experience in video production, public
relations and fundraising, she approached the speaker and offered
to help spread the word about, and raise funds for, this orphanage.
Two months later, at her own expense, she traveled to Obwasi, a
rural village with the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in Ghana, preparing
to produce a documentary about the AIDS orphans there.
She quickly learned that these parentless children are perceived
to be “evil” and shunned by a society that has no access to
education about HIV/AIDS. She also learned that every 30 seconds a
child becomes an AIDS orphan and that nearly 11 million African
children have been orphaned by the disease. To her horror, she
heard how witchcraft responses to AIDS encourages the rape and
abuse of young girls and intensifies the epidemic.
This information and the visual images of AIDS orphans are
recorded in the short documentary she filmed, edited and produced
entitled, “Dying to Live,” which was shown at the symposium. The
Tobin communications manager (who also works with Tiny Stars, an
organization that offers marketing/public relations assistance to
fledgling not-for-profit organizations in the human service area)
is eager to share her work with larger audiences and is seeking
outlets and venues in which to showcase it.
At the conclusion of his presentation, Professor Conry called World AIDS Day a “day
for the world to reflect on how far we’ve come and where we still
need to go,” and pointed to several people within the St. John’s
community who have served as “Models of Caring for HIV-infected
Persons” and embraced the Vincentian Mission of the
University. He discussed the volunteer work by St. John’s
alumnus Josiah Mooney and his wife Katherine, who have joined the
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Volunteer program and are spending
the first two years of their marriage in southwestern Guatemala.
There, they are building and working at a hospice for HIV/AIDS
patients and educating people about the illness. ”It truly is
incredible and Vincentian service,” he commented.
“Stop AIDS: Keep the Promise” is the theme for World AIDS Day 2005. It
refers to commitments made in the United Nations Declaration of
Commitment to conquer the disease, the 3X5 Initiative of the World
Health Organization and UNAIDS and in the Millennium Development
Goals. Those, Professor Conry advised the audience, have not yet
been met. He challenges us to “Stop AIDS: Make Your Promise” by:
preventing HIV; educating yourself; treating HIV-infected persons
with dignity and respect; and supporting local HIV programs that
provide care and treatment.
For more information, visit the World AIDS
Campaign Web site. In addition, read about Project Renewal’s Mobile
Medical Outreach Clinic -- one of the first mobile medical
units to offer preventative, urgent and HIV/AIDS services in
addition to primary care to the homeless in Manhattan.