AIDS: Still Deadly After All These Years
Mirroring national trends, young people in Hawaii seem oblivious to the risks of HIV/AIDS.
Earlier this year, a mother of small children visited a Honolulu hospital with pneumonia-like symptoms, only to receive the crushing news that she had AIDS. The woman had never been tested for HIV—a virus that, if detected earlier, could likely have been managed with medication before progressing to AIDS—and did not leave the hospital alive.
The news struck Paul Groesbeck as a frustrating anachronism, harkening back to the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic, when HIV tests were not yet available and AIDS was diagnosed almost exclusively in emergency rooms. “I feel like I’ve just walked out of a time machine into an ominous place from the past,” says Groesbeck, executive director of Life Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting AIDS in Hawaii and the Pacific. “This is the way it used to be and we can’t allow it to start again.”
Whether from complacency or lack of education, HIV/AIDS remains a significant public health concern—especially among people who aren’t old enough to have lived through the harrowing onset of the epidemic. Each year, Life Foundation administers about 2,500 free and anonymous HIV tests; stunningly, the group reports that about 80 percent of those who test positive for HIV are age 28 and younger.
“In Hawaii there is a lot of risk behavior in youth,” says Hawaii state Department of Health STD/AIDS Prevention Branch chief Peter Whiticar. He says our state has some of the highest rates of chlamydia in the country and one of the lowest rates of condom use. “There’s a lot of thinking that ‘It can’t happen to me, it only happens to other people who aren’t like me.’”
In fact, despite the ubiquity of information about the disease, public health professionals continue to combat the dated stereotype that HIV infects only young, white, gay men. “In Hawaii, it is not a ‘white man’s disease’ anymore,” says Groesbeck. “Of our 700 case management clients, about 42 percent are Caucasian now, whereas when I started at this job 18 years ago it was closer to 85 percent. We’ve added 33 new clients in the last four months and about 40 percent of them are Native Hawaiians, Asians or Pacific Islanders.”
“People have HIV and AIDS across the state; it’s not centered in Honolulu,” adds Whiticar. “So whether it’s Kauai, Maui or the Big Island, we have a relatively similar proportion of people with HIV and AIDS living in those counties and needing services.”
To help educate today’s youth about the importance of and easy access to HIV testing, Life Foundation developed its current “Get Real, Get Tested” campaign, featuring volunteer Oahu models. “We wanted to show local faces—and other body parts—to try to continue to get across the point that AIDS is a health issue, not a moral issue,” says Groesbeck. Outreach workers hope the “Get Real, Get Tested” message will galvanize viewers to action.
Life Foundation offers free, anonymous HIV tests with results in about 20 minutes. Its mobile testing van covers all of Oahu. No appointment necessary. Call 521-AIDS or visit lifefoundation.org. Similar organizations offer testing on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island; call Life Foundation for a referral.