Today’s blog post is by History of Vaccines intern Alexandra Linn.
This past week, I had the chance to visit the International AIDS Conference held in Washington, DC. One of the most striking aspects of the conference was the number of young people who were there to advocate, coordinate, and communicate their beliefs and stories about AIDS. The youth have taken a stand and will certainly be a force in the future fight against the disease.
Here at History of Vaccines we strive to spread information about these diseases to youth everywhere. After attending AIDS 2012, I realized how important it is to go beyond educating about the science of these diseases – and to actually teach young people what others in their generation are doing and how they got involved.
Here are stories, tips, and inspirational quotes from some of the amazing youth I met at the conference. Keep up the good work, everyone!
“We feel that we are invincible,” said Elliot Weinstein, an 18-year-old student from the New York area who was serving as a volunteer at the AIDS 2012 Youth Pavilion. “We take more risks, but at some point our luck could run out.”
As volunteers, Weinstein and fellow 18-year-old Olivia El-Sadr Davis had a rare opportunity to learn about the AIDS plight today. Rather than reading about it in a textbook or online, they heard from survivors first hand and were able to see people from around the world engaging in dialogue for change.
Overall, the youth I talked to had very diverse reasons for becoming interested and getting involved with AIDS advocacy – ranging from taking a biology course to knowing a relative who had been infected.
When prompted about the best advice they could give others of their generation, El-Sadr Davis said, “People need to know that it is really prevalent in the United States.” In fact, about “twenty percent of people in the U.S. [who are infected] do not know they are HIV positive.”
Weinstein replied by saying, “People think that when you get HIV it’s the end of the world, that it defines you. But we’ve been listening to a lot of talks and this is no longer the case. We are in a new chapter.”
More and more people are joining hands in a community without disease – in fact growing numbers of celebrities continue to get involved with Sir Elton John, Hillary Clinton, Whoopi Goldberg, and Bill Gates all speaking from their hearts about the cause at AIDS 2012.
Weinstein and El-Sadr stated that they were extremely inspired by the growing circle of celebrities. And when asked about one celebrity they hoped would get involved in the future, Weinstein answered,”Meryl Streep.”
Along with volunteers, AIDS 2012 featured youth from all around the world who are doing amazing things in their communities. Tishauna Edwards, 21, was at the conference advocating for Guyana Youth Coalition, an organization that is working to spread education about AIDS throughout this northern South American country.
Edwards said that one of the most important parts of her work is going to rural communities outside of the cities. “They are not getting information, so I am taking it to them.”
When asked about the hardest part of her advocacy, Edwards replied that talking about sex was difficult because, “People are shy about it.” Moreover, Edwards stated that many youth are involved in sex work, they are exposed and they do not realize their risks.
Edwards had great advice for youth interested in getting involved: “I do it from my heart. If you want to see a change, and this is what you really want — go out there and do it – just put your heart into it!”
Each booth I visited had innovative ways of teaching and empathizing with AIDs patients. The PU Youth Peer Education Network, an organization from Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, used different colors for each category of risk – red for high, yellow for mid and green for low – to show when you should take extra precaution.
Their logo and motto, “only you decide,” emphasizes the importance of choice and individual voice against a virus.
Other groups are working toward AIDS advocacy on the Web.
“A Girl Like Me”, or girllikeme.org, invites girls from all over the world to talk to each other through blogging about AIDS and their experiences. Deborah from Uganda told me that the women at the booth had just met face to face at the conference – although they had been communicating from around the world for months.
Deborah became involved because she “was looking for someone like me, a woman with HIV, and just started writing and telling [her] story.”
Her advice for young people who want to get involved is to first research and learn about the problem. “It’s one thing to be interested in something, but it’s another to be knowledgeable.” She went on to advise that you don’t need to think too big. “You only need to reach one person – one girl – at a time.”
Another group working to build an online community is Youth AIDS Diary: A Global Voice, a website that was created by a class of 13 students at Davidson College. The biology class began by asking fellow classmates the question, “What does HIV/AIDs mean to you?’ This question morphed into an online source where you can post your opinions and experiences about the disease.
Mariah Sanguinetti, a 20-year-old rising junior at Davidson said that originally the group noted that AIDs did not really affect people at her college. Although, she continued, “we have less than 2,000 students but have heard that two are HIV positive. It shows you that even in our Davidson bubble, it’s there.”
Sanguinetti said that when her class first started the project, they read a lot of scientific papers. “We saw this stigma,” Sanguinetti said, “It attached itself to the research.” Other books her class read to become more knowledgeable, and that she recommends to others, included Invisible Cure and The Wisdom of Whores.
When asked how her work with the website has changed her opinion of AIDs, Sanguinetti voiced the variety of ways people approach AIDs – some through humor and others by associating it with specific point people – which show that negative opinions and fear associated with the disease are changing. Youth AIDs Diary spreads these approaches to the world by putting a face to the disease. The site is extremely accessible with a share button allowing anyone with a computer to click and tell their story.
Sanguinetti said that there are many roles to fill in the fight against AIDs. “Find what you are good at and stick to it.” Her take away advice for college students and other young people hoping to get involved: “Take initiative and be passionate. You can’t make people join you unless you are 150 percent behind it – We are the leaders of tomorrow, it’s important that we start now.”
Talking to young people from around the world was inspiring and humbling. No matter your background or knowledge level, you can help in the fight. Visit aids2012.org to learn more about the conference and how policy makers, advocates, youth and scientists are hoping to change the future of AIDs and enter an “AIDs-free generation.”