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University News

Despite advances, AIDS still poses threat

Contributing Writer
Thursday, December 1, 2011

When the first American diagnosis of AIDS catapulted it onto the national health scene 30 years ago, the disease was shrouded in mystery and stigma. Since then, major medical breakthroughs and heightened public awareness have made AIDS a more treatable and recognizable threat. But these advances can give students a false sense of security, University administrators said. For many on campus, yesterday’s commemoration of World AIDS Day was both a celebration of progress achieved and a reminder of work to come.

Health Services has ramped up prevention efforts in recent years, now offering free mouth-swab HIV testing to all undergraduate and graduate students. In the 2010-11 school year, more than 1,000 students took HIV tests, said Edward Wheeler, director of Health Services. Last year, Health Services switched to an opt-out testing model, so any students who come in for a routine physical or gynecological exam are automatically offered the test. Administrators said campus prevention efforts focus on HIV, since students with the disease generally are not at Brown long enough to develop AIDS.

Wheeler said the high testing numbers reflect drastic changes in attitudes toward the disease over the past couple decades. “I just feel like the conversation is so much more comfortable, that we’re actually able to do more because it’s easier,” he said, crediting Health Services’ education resources with changing the campus discourse. “Twenty years ago, when we started testing, people were really worried about getting the test, even about having the test in their medical records.”

Janet Cooper Nelson, University chaplain and former president of AIDS Project Rhode Island, attributed the changes to more open dialogue about sexual health and progress in the fight against AIDS. “We really can show death-to-life turnaround in about two weeks,” she said, noting the dramatic improvement in methods for treating the disease since she arrived at the University 20 years ago.

But Cooper Nelson warned of the dangers of complacency. Students who have been educated about the disease often view it as removed from their own lives, she said. “If I followed you around on a Friday night at a party, (I am) not so sure that sexual practices reflect education.”

Better treatment options also mitigate students’ concern, said Naomi Ninneman, health educator at Health Services. “The perception can be that there’s almost a cure for it,” she said. “There’s a good and a bad in it not being scary.”

Though HIV has been rare on College Hill, it has taken a toll on members of the Brown community, Wheeler said. He added that, to his knowledge, no students have died due to AIDS while at Brown.

Cooper Nelson said she has attended many memorial services for alums who died of AIDS. “We’ve not been spared,” she said. “The Brown community has felt more than its share of tragedy.”

For World AIDS Day, several student organizations joined forces to promote testing and awareness. But Jessica Mitter ’13, founder of GlobeMed at Brown University, a group working to establish a sexual health center for young girls in Nairobi, expressed frustration with the day’s low profile on campus. “It was kind of hard. We had to muster up support for the event that wasn’t really there,” she said. “No one was talking about it.”

Gabe Spellberg ‘13.5, a volunteer at AIDS Project Rhode Island, said he thought the lack of engagement with the issue extended to students’ personal lives. “I don’t think it’s thought about very often,” he said. “It’s not something I think people worry about when they engage in sexual encounters.” Spellberg said he thought knowledge of an HIV diagnosis would shock the campus community and could lead to stigmatization out of fear.

Many students expressed a lack of immediate concern about the disease. Joel Kang ’13 said the liberal atmosphere and widespread usage of safe sex practices makes students less worried about HIV. “I think the common perception is that it’s something that doesn’t exist on campus,” he said.

At the same time, some students are impressed with campus efforts to draw attention to the issue, especially for World AIDS Day.

“I feel I’m more aware of it here because Brown’s doing all of these things that make you more aware of it,” said Alexandra Effenberger GS.

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