Confronting the epidemic

By By Ana Breton, , and By Ana Breton

By Ana Breton

The image stays in your mind whether you want it to or not — a picture of a young African girl staring directly into the camera with a look of emptiness.

Her skin is covered with white bumps. She can barely open her eyes because they have been attacked by even more tiny white bumps. Her skin is rigid — she hasn’t smiled in a long time.

Her expression is one of sadness; her reality is sadder. She has AIDS, and with no treatment available in her village, she is most likely to die relatively soon.

She is one of the 1.3 million people who are living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya, a number estimated by the Joint United Nations Programme at the end of 2005.

Ronald Harris, assistant professor of dermatology and pathology at the U School of Medicine, took the photo of this girl when he visited a Kenyan hospital last year.

He explained the HIV/AIDS epidemic within the black population in both Africa and the United States during a Black History Month lecture yesterday.

“AIDS is the No. 1 cause of death among African Americans in America, killing more than heart disease or car accidents,” Harris told the audience members in the Health Science Education lecture hall.

He also gave a brief history of the disease in the United States.

In 1998, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention declared HIV/AIDS a state of emergency. By 2001, the death toll for blacks had doubled that of Caucasians in the United States. In 2005, CDC announced that half of all Americans with HIV/AIDS were black.

He said that last year, when the epidemic turned 25 years old, people were still seven times more likely to be diagnosed with the HIV virus if they were black.

“It was definitely an awakening to the black community,” Harris said. “And about time to reflect on the reality of the HIV/AIDS epidemic crisis.”

There is still no vaccine or cure for the disease. Its rapid spread, however, has been linked to sexual contact, substance abuse and lack of awareness.

Women especially need to learn more about the disease, Harris said. “Just because a guy looks clean doesn’t mean he is,” he said. “And if you don’t ask, you’ll never know.”

Jason Hawkes, a first-year graduate student in medicine, said everyone — not just women — need to be aware of the disease.

“There needs to be an overall movement to solve the problem,” Hawkes said. “Everyone needs to make an effort to solve the problem.”

Melissa Eckman, a senior in biology, was with Harris during his trip to Africa. She said that seeing that young girl changed her life.

“It was hard to take in the fact that most of the people we saw there were likely to die,” Eckman said. “It’s bothersome to see the hard reality of this horrible epidemic.”