Tyler retiree Jo An Hickman struggled to contain her emotions Saturday, recalling her son’s hardships after being diagnosed with HIV, the virus associated with AIDS.
“It’s OK to care,” she said.
Ms. Hickman was among several dozen people who gathered at Bergfeld Park to commemorate World AIDS Day 2012 and reflect on the lives lost to the disease.
The event, organized by the East Texas CARES Resource Center, formerly Tyler AIDS Services, and Tyler Area Gays, was designed to stress the importance of education and prevention as a way to halt the spread of the illness.
Jeanette Deas Calhoun, PhD, CARES executive director, said curtailing new infections is an uphill battle that’s growing harder as more people are affected.
“The numbers are a lot larger than what people think,” Mrs. Calhoun said. “Because we’re a rural community, we’ve not gotten the resources and grants to help us combat this epidemic. The money is flowing to larger areas.”
There are no exact figures for Smith County HIV/AIDS cases because many people are not being tested, but that could change with more resources, she said.
About 66,000 Texans are living with HIV and AIDS, with about 2,030 new HIV cases diagnosed annually, records show.
“We’re having this event to make the community more aware,” CARES Board President Chris Cochran said. “It’s a preventable problem.”
Freddie Layton, Jr. works with newly diagnosed patients, and says they often incorrectly assume they’ve just been handed an immediate death sentence.
“They can still lead long and productive lives,” he said.
D. Karen Wilkerson, affiliated with Tyler Area Gays, remembers when the disease first emerged — it developed a negative stigma and few resources were allocated to combat it.
“We did not know what to do or how to help them,” she said, noting many helping organizations turned a blind eye to the disease. “It soured me against a lot of organizations. … It was absolutely horrible treatment.”
Dr. Shirley McKellar, a clinical nurse specialist, said when she obtained her nursing degree in 1969, medical textbooks virtually overlooked the disease.
“In the ’80s, no one wanted to care for them,” she said. “We need to keep fighting for the cause of health care.”
Participants of Saturday’s event said they hope to see radical change in the area of prevention and treatment.
“I really believe in this cause,” Cindy Real, of Tyler, who works for Special Health Resources, said, “There has been a lot of growth (in new cases) in the East Texas areas, especially among Latinos and African Americans. The need is outweighing the resources.”
People need to be diligent in knowing if they have HIV, for their protection as well as others, Teresa Jordan, CARES program coordinator and tester.
“Maybe it (disease) hasn’t really affected their family yet, but it’s coming,” Ms. Jordan said. “It’s not a dirty disease; it can affect anyone’s family.”
AIDS advocate and college student Jennifer Jones agreed.
She said it’s important to allocate sufficient resources for education, prevention and treatment to get ahead of the problem.
“We don’t need to cut off an entire generation because they have a disease,” she said.