The 28th annual World AIDS Day is Thursday, and with it, the chance to bring education and awareness to the disease.
The first World AIDS Day was held in 1988, and each year, organizers around the world show solidarity with the millions of people living with HIV/AIDS, make efforts to initiate prevention and commemorate those who have died.
In La Plata County, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, part of the Names Project Foundation, will be on display in the lobby of the Fort Lewis College Student Union Building until Friday.
The quilt, considered the largest community art project in the world, began in 1987 in San Francisco with the aim of memorializing those who died from HIV/AIDS.
Greg Weiss, an administrative assistant for FLC’s housing and conference services, as well as an organizer for the Four Corners Alliance for Diversity, said this is the first year the quilt is on display at the college, as opposed to previous years when it was at the Durango Public Library.
The idea, he said, is to put the memorial in a more prominent place where college students can see it, and hopefully, open up the conversation about issues surrounding the disease.
“People aren’t dying at the same rates of the 1980s and ’90s, so I think the younger generation isn’t as aware of HIV,” Weiss said. “So we have to create a safe space where people can ask questions and remove that stigma attached to the disease.”
New cases of those infected with HIV/AIDS in Colorado, as well as nationwide, have been decreasing since new drugs were introduced in the late 1990s. According to 2013 data, about 12,635 people were living with the disease in the state and more than 1.2 million people nationwide.
HIV/AIDS is transmitted through certain body fluids, such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids and pre-seminal fluids, among others, from a person infected with the disease. Common ways the disease is spread is through sex or sharing injection drug equipment.
However, the effort to fight the disease is far from over, said Jeff Basinger, director of regional programs for Western Colorado AIDS Project, a patient advocacy group for people on the Western Slope dealing with HIV/AIDS. The nonprofit provides people living with the disease information about prevention and treatment options at no cost and ensures complete confidentiality.
According to a 2014 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment report, four new cases of the disease were diagnosed in La Plata County from 2010 to 2014.
The same report showed there were 46 people living with the disease in the county.
Basinger said that over the last decade, the state of Colorado has seen a favorable decline in new HIV/AIDS diagnoses, but the three-county area of Archuleta, La Plata and Montezuma counties are still his organization’s second highest caseload on the Western Slope.
Throughout the three-county region, Basinger said the Western Colorado AIDS Project serves 30 to 50 individuals, which has remained fairly stable over the past few years.
One new issue the organization has seen recently, Basinger said, is the “extreme increase” in the transmission of HIV/AIDS through injection drug use, as heroine and opiates surge into rural Colorado.
“We’ve seen a 500 percent increase in heroine drug use here in Mesa County,” he said.
Mesa County is home to the only legal syringe exchange program in the state, with more than 400 people enrolled. Basinger called it the “single most scientifically proved intervention” method to reduce new infectious diseases among people who inject drugs.
Reflecting on the 28th annual World AIDS Day, Basinger said there’s still much work to be done, especially when one in eight people with HIV are never tested and don’t know they have the disease.
“More often, we find new cases when the patient’s in the emergency room and finally a doctor goes, ‘maybe we should test,’” he said. “By then, they’re already late stages, infected years and years, already battling health issues.
This article has been updated to correct the title of Greg Weiss.
“That’s when we jump into action,” he said. “And we’ve seen some amazing recoveries.”