Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Las Cruces recognizes World AIDS Day and the millions impacted by the virus

LAS CRUCES – Las Crucens showed up in solidarity Thursday evening to honor the millions of people around the world who have died from acquired immunodeficiency virus on World AIDS Day, and recognize the progress made in treatment in the last several decades.

While the virus itself has been around for centuries, the first cases of AIDS surfaced in the US in the mid to late 1970s. Misconceptions about how the virus spread led to not only a public health pandemic, but a pandemic of negative stigma that followed those who tested positive, or even dared to be tested. This prejudice heavily affected the LGBTQ+ community.

A positive AIDS test used to mean a death sentence, but treatment has come a long way and people are able to live largely normal lives with the proper treatment. However, stigma still remains.

Community members gather to honor those who have died of AIDS related illnesses during a World AIDS Day event on Thursday, Dec.  1, 2022, at Pioneer Women's Park.

Community members, social service organizations, the New Mexico Department of Health and people who currently live with the virus gathered Thursday evening under the Pioneer Women’s Park gazebo. Alianza of New Mexico, an HIV resource organization, hosted the event. Organizers said this was the first annual event to be recognized each year on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day.

“There’s sort of a different urgency nowadays,” said Buddy Akin, who spoke from the perspective of someone who lives with the virus. “There’s not the urgency of people dying the way it was before, but we want to get those prevention messages out there and let people know about things like that. And also to bring this community together, it’s really important.”

Akin explained to the crowd that he was diagnosed with HIV 30 years ago and at that time was told by his doctor in Los Angeles that he had between two to five years to live. However, he chose to take a more “forceful” approach to his life and his health.

“I was scared,” he said, about acknowledging his sexuality at the time. “I was afraid to have sex. I was afraid to admit who I was. I was afraid of who I might be. And I realized like a moment of clarity after I got my diagnosis that the real problem is love. The real problem is self-esteem.”

Buddy Akin, who is living with AIDS, speaks during a World AIDS Day event on Thursday, Dec.  1, 2022, at Pioneer Women's Park.

Today, Akins shares his story and advocates for others living with the virus.

“I was 13 years old when I began seeing reports in the news about the mysterious deaths that happened as a result of the ‘gay disease.’ This was also at a time where I was beginning to learn how to navigate a world that told me that I was going to hell for who I was,” said Sen. Carrie Hamblen (D-Las Cruces).

Hamblen highlighted the progress that has been made, even this week with the US Senate’s passing of the Respect for Marriage Act. She pointed to the Equality Act as another big step that needs to be made. If passed, the bill would amend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

She also pointed to a discriminating policy that keeps gay men from donating blood unless they have abstained from having sex with other men for at least three months. Hamblen said this policy fails to take into account that all donated blood is tested before used for a transfusion.

Gina Fullbright, who works in HIV prevention with the New Mexico Department of Health, recalled her time working as a nurse in the early years of the pandemic. She described doing a head-to-toe gown, a mask, gloves, shoe covers and a head covering just to deliver a meal to an HIV-positive patient due to fears of how the virus was transmitted.

Community members gather to honor those who have died of AIDS related illnesses during a World AIDS Day event on Thursday, Dec.  1, 2022, at Pioneer Women's Park.

“A couple of years ago, the CDC launched a plan to end the HIV epidemic with the aim of at least a 90% reduction in new HIV infections by the year of 2030,” she said. “This is achievable through the goal of testing and diagnosing HIV as early as possible after infection, making sure those who are infected have timely access to treatment and preventing new HIV infection by using proven interventions.”

Fullbright said she is specifically involved with providing PrEP, pre-exposure prophylaxis, which is an oral pill that is 99% effective in reducing HIV transmission through sexual contact.

Attendees ended the night with a memorial walk around the park in honor of the people who have died from AIDS-related complications and the five people killed last month in a mass shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs.

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Leah Romero is the trending reporter at the Las Cruces Sun-News and can be reached at 575-418-3442, [email protected] or @rromero_leah on Twitter.

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