A walk to remember

Annual AIDS walk focuses on continued fight for a cure

As many as one hundred people gathered in the cafeteria of Jersey City Medical Center-Barnabas Health on Dec. 1 to participate in what has become a historic walk, marking World AIDS Day.
A national commemoration which began in 1988, World AIDS day provides an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in their fight against HIV, and show support for people living with the disease. It also a day to commemorate those who perished.
The Jersey City walk started on the hospital grounds on Grand Street and slowly made its way north along Jersey Avenue to Columbus Drive and eventually to Grove Street, with supporters along the sidewalks waving or calling out support.
At City Hall on Grove Street, the multitude gathered on the steps, drawing even more attention before reassembling in the City Council chambers for a prayer vigil, candle lighting ceremony, and information session.
Some of those who spoke included Dr. Adriana Grigoriu, the chief of Infectious Disease for Jersey City Medical Center, and Jersey City Deputy Mayor Marcos Vigil.

A long battle against AIDS

Many of those who put on the red baseball caps and red scarves symbolizing unity against AIDS remembered the bad old days in previous decades of seemingly hopeless struggle against the disease.
“In the late 1980s, HIV was a death sentence,” said Linda Ivory-Green, community health services coordinator in Jersey City.
She said people had no hope, and the only available medicine was a complicated cocktail. Statistics show that 90 percent of those suffering from AIDS in 1989 died.
“Since then, treatment has advanced in leaps and bounds,” she said.
While the numbers have improved and lives have been saved, people are still becoming infected and the world has become more complacent, a dangerous sign for the future.

“Even though we’ve made a lot of progress over the last 15 years, this is still a life threatening disease.” – Marvin Krieger
Marvin Krieger, director of the Hudson County HIV/AIDS Planning Council, recalled a time around 1980 when nobody knew what was happening.
“Thirty five years later we still have to fight,” he said. “Even though we’ve made a lot of progress over the last 15 years, this is still a life-threatening disease.”
He said it is good that 84 percent of people diagnosed with HIV survive, but this also means that 16 percent are still dying from it.
Stacey Flanagan, director of the Jersey City Department of Health & Human Services and the Jersey City AIDS Task Force which sponsored the walk, said she was motivated to get involved because she saw people close to her infected when she was young.
“My uncle died of AIDS before we knew what it was,” she said. “He was the first I saw, a combination of alcohol and drug use.”
The loss of people close to her inspired her to volunteer.
“But even though they have passed, by remembering them, they are still with us,” she said.

Hudson County has a success record

Hudson County – and in particular Jersey City – have seen amazing success in this fight. In the late 1980s, according to Ivory-Green, the most many family members and friends could do was provide comfort while someone they loved slowly died.
In 2013, Jersey City had the sixth highest rate of AIDS in the state, while New Jersey was among the states with the highest in the nation with reported cases. Most the victims were men between the ages of 25 to 44. Almost half were African American and another 25 percent were Hispanic.
Statewide, nearly 80 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS are 40 years old or older. Between 2002 and 2013, while the number of HIV/AIDS diagnoses among all other risk populations decreased by 32 percent, the number of HIV/AIDS diagnoses among young men who have sex with men increased by 40 percent.
The two primary ways of contracting the disease were male to male sexual contact or intravenous drug use, according to statistics supplied by the Centers for Disease Control.
As of this year, 84 percent of those infected with HIV survive, and prevention has cut down the rate of new infections. But activists in this year’s march say they are fighting to reduce that number to zero by 2030 if they can.
Revolutionary drug breakthroughs over the last decade, massive awareness campaigns, needle exchange programs, and other initiatives have helped reshape the field, making it easier to treat people with the disease and prevent new cases.
But just as they think they are winning the battle against the disease, activists say they are facing new challenges.

Funding cuts and increased heroin use could increase HIV risk

Funding channeled through county government to be distributed among various service providers has been significantly cut. This affects not only treatment, but also awareness programs that help reduce the number of new HIV infections.
In Jersey City, a new wave of heroin has hit the streets, and activists fear this will cause an increase in the use of dirty needles and more HIV infections. With reduced funding, activists will have fewer tools to battle back against the disease.
Almost a quarter of funding to the county has been cut over the last few years, activists say, leaving thousands of lives in jeopardy.
“We’ve gone from $7 million to $5 million,” he said.
Congress enacted the Ryan White CARE Act in 1990 to help stem the spread of HIV/AIDS. Until March 1, 2007, Hudson County qualified as an Eligible Metropolitan Area, allowing it to compete with 21 other areas around the state for nearly $500 million in federal funding. But changes implemented by the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Modernization Act of 2006 resulted in a loss of more than $2 million in federal aid per year.
Part of the reason for loss of funding is that under some of the reporting regulations changes made about six years ago, HIV is no longer counted. This means that thousands of Hudson County residents infected with HIV are not considered relevant for the funding.

Deaths are very real

In a ceremony that followed this year’s walk, organizers read out the names of local people who have died over the years. As if to indicate the negative stigma still attached to the disease, they read only the first name and last initial. Then, members of the public who were given candles named those they knew, names of people they needed to keep alive in memory, loved ones whose spirit seemed to fill the council chamber as they spoke.
“We are grateful they have touched our lives,” said Ivory-Green. “The candles are a symbol of their living spirit.”

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.

© 2000, Newspaper Media Group