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‘Code’ for AIDS and HIV awareness

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Twenty seven years after the first AIDS case was reported in the United States, the disease still continues to take its toll. Indeed, in areas of central Brooklyn, HIV/AIDS infection is on the rise, the result in part of an aversion to talking about the disease honestly, said State Senator Kevin Parker, who has just launched a task force that will focus on HIV/AIDS, and specifically on prevention and education. Specifically, Parker said, heterosexual black women have a rising incidence of HIV/AIDS, which he called “a really disturbing trend.” Overall, he said, HIV/AIDS, “Is disproportionately affecting African-American communities.” For instance, Parker pointed out, “In zip code 11225, we have one of the highest incidences per capita in the entire country. Part of it is a lack of education. There’s also a lack of willingness to talk about the behavior that could lead to infection.” In general, Parker added, the West Indies is an epicenter of the disease. “Aside from sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean has the most incidences of HIV and AIDS in the world,” Parker pointed out. Parker kicked off the new task force — whose centerpiece is a three-month-long public awareness campaign whose goal is to bring the subject the attention it needs — on Black World AIDS Day, February 7th, at Lutheran Medical Center’s Caribbean-American Family Health Center, 3414 Church Avenue. “We are launching the campaign, Know Your Code. Like people know their zip code, we want people to know their status and code of conduct,” Parker explained. “HIV/AIDS is a disease that’s a pandemic and horrible, but the good news is that it can be eradicated if we change our behavior,” he went on. The first step is speaking openly about the disease. “There’s been a shyness, a stigma, a lack of recognition of the behaviors that lead to infection going on in the community daily,” Parker added. “We hope by educating people we can eliminate the stigma and have a healthier community.” For Parker, the issue of HIV/AIDS represents the intersection of public policy and private commitment. “It’s very personal for me,” he stressed, explaining that his older brother, Eric, died of AIDS in 1988, having contracted the still unvanquished and brutal ailment four years earlier through intravenous drug use. “He was very smart and talented, and he withered away and died before my eyes,” recalled Parker. “And here we are, 20 years later, and frankly no closer to a cure than we were then and still not behaving in a way that will eradicate the pandemic.” Parker attributed the recent rise in HIV/AIDS in part to a sense of familiarity breeding contempt. To that end, Parker contended, many people take the disease more lightly than it deserves, a perception he would like to see altered. After being scared for years by images of people wasting away, said Parker, images of people like Magic Johnson, who is seemingly thriving despite having contracted the disease, eradicate fear. And, with the fear, all too often go the necessary precautions, he noted. “In the beginning, when you saw people wasting away, it was more kind of in your face,” Parker stressed. To tackle the pandemic, said Parker, the task force would approach it the way he approaches a political campaign. “We are trying to use all the modalities we use in a campaign to reach people – posters, mailings, a website, events,” he explained. Indeed, said Parker, the task force would be sponsoring an event a week for the next 12 weeks to bring their message to as wide an audience as possible. These events will target different groups – men, women, senior citizens and young people; in addition, there will be general events (a town hall, a faith-based event, and a concert and testing day, for example) to spread the message. Besides trying to publicize the issue, Parker’s task force will also be pressuring those who hold the purse strings. “We’re going to be addressing letters to the governor, the mayor and the president that we disagree with the funding streams and the funding amounts. They are not adequate,” Parker stressed. Understanding how close HIV/AIDS can be is a key to reducing the occurrence of the disease. “You always think it’s somebody else,” Parker concluded. “It’s a disease that affects the others. The reality is that the others are our neighbors, our family, our friends.” The task force is still in formation. It includes medical professionals, clergy, educators, members of CBOs (community-based organizations) and community activists, as well as Local 1199, a group of sororities and fraternities and two corporations – Cablevision and HealthPlus. For further information, email the task force project manager at trinayearwood@ aol.com, or log onto www. whatsyourcode.org.

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