In the Toledo region, the center is working with a network of providers and other organizations to promote World AIDS Day activities, according to ARC Ohio Toledo Program Manager Julie Embree . The AIDS Coalition of Toledo and Northwest Ohio, or ACT NOW, includes ARC Ohio, University of Toledo Student Affairs and others, which are collaborating to promote awareness among students and the community. The center is also working with Bowling Green University in outreach activities for its students.
These and similar activities represent shifts in HIV outreach—including targeting youth and other high-risk groups—as well as other changes in the way the epidemic is viewed here in the U.S. One of the goals of the global focus on leadership this World AIDS Day is to assess where we’ve been, what the current needs are, and what leadership is needed to continue to address the pandemic.
“Since the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, leadership has helped us face astonishing obstacles,” says Bill Hardy , Executive Director of AIDS Resource Center Ohio , which provides services to thousands throughout 35 Ohio counties.
Now completing his fifteenth year with the center, Hardy has seen significant changes in the efforts and the leadership that has been essential to the cause over the years.
“In the early days of the HIV epidemic, we were struggling to gain understanding and bring compassionate responses in the midst of profound confusion, fear and even hysteria. People were wondering, ‘Can I become infected from a drinking fountain? Through a mosquito? From touching someone?’ It was in this context that volunteers in communities just like this one came together in kitchens and living rooms to form grassroots groups that became today’s AIDS service organizations.”
Today, Hardy cites different, but no less daunting, challenges. More than 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS. And, in spite of all we know, the spread if HIV is quickening. Last year, 4.3 million were individuals were newly-infected, more than in any previous year. In the U.S. , 1.1 million are living with HIV/AIDS, 40,000 a year become infected, and another 280,000 or more are unaware they carry the virus.
“While there’s still no cure, we’ve made remarkable advances in treating HIV/AIDS, especially in the U.S. At the same time, the number of persons living with HIV—and needing supportive services right here in our community—is at an all time high and continues to increase,” states Hardy. As of September, 2007, ARC Ohio had already exceeded by 30 percent the total number assisted in all of 2006. Hardy estimates that, by the end of the year, the center will provide services to nearly 1,400 HIV-infected individuals, plus another 800 family members.
Current treatment has increased the life expectancy for HIV-infected individuals from months in the early days of the epidemic to more than two decades. But the financial and other costs are still staggering. ARC Ohio estimates medically-related expenses to treat the 2,700 individuals currently identified in the region to be between $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion dollars. Of this, more than 70 percent is for antiretroviral drugs.
But HIV infected individuals in some Ohio communities face additional barriers. According to Hardy, HIV-positive individuals and their families living outside Cleveland , Columbus, and Cincinnati have access to less state- and federally-funded HIV care programs. “This inequity makes life even more challenging for persons with HIV/AIDS in mid-sized cities and more rural counties,” Hardy says. He attributes the disparity to the way government funds are allocated, and the relatively slow responses of some regions to the needs of persons living with HIV/AIDS a decade or more ago. “Communities that did not seek funding in the first two decades of the epidemic have, unfortunately, now often been left out.”
On top of this, public and private support for HIV programs in the U.S. have been stagnant or shrinking, even as the statistics document ever-increasing numbers of people living with HIV. “As a result, our resources are being stretched thinner and thinner,” says Hardy.
But, perhaps the worst problem is one that is far less tangible. “Apathy is our number one enemy today” reflects Hardy. “No one wears a red ribbon anymore. The passion about this issue has died down. Now perhaps more than ever, this has become ‘someone else’s’ battle: If you’re a young person, you think drugs will save you if you become infected. If your white, you think it affects only people of color. If your straight, it’s about the gays. If you lived through the first wave of the epidemic, you’re tired of all the AIDS talk. If you live in the U.S. , the real problem is in Africa . Never has leadership been more important than it is today.”
With offices in Dayton , Lima , Mansfield and Toledo , AIDS Resource Center provides a continuum of HIV-specific support and prevention services across 35 Ohio counties. This year, the organizations will provide case management, emergency assistance and other services to over 2,000 persons with HIV/AIDS and their loved ones. Thousands more will participate in prevention and HIV counseling/counseling/referral activities. For more information about ARC Ohio’s services in Northwest Ohio , call (419) 241-9444 or visit www.arcohio.org.