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Church honors AIDS victims, raises awareness

By Billy Corriher

He has been married for 33 years. He's never used intravenous drugs or committed adultery. In 1999, he found out he has AIDS.

"John," who did not want his real name printed, is a former police officer and said his line of work often caused him to get in bloody fights, and once, resulted in him getting pricked with a dirty needle.

After doctors discovered the disease, he was given two years to live. Four years later, he is counting his blessings.

"I'm lucky," he said. "My wife and kids are healthy."

Still, he said, many people react with alarm when they find out he has the virus. One nurse at an Atlanta hospital went so far as to put on a full protective suit to draw blood from his arm.

"It embarrassed the hell out of me," he said.

Many people are wary of AIDS sufferers because they do not understand how the virus is transmitted, said John Patterson of the AIDS Ministry at St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Jonesboro.

"You have to educate people because some of them don't understand how you can transmit the virus," he said. Many people mistakenly think the virus can be transmitted through physical contact, which leads to a stigma associated with AIDS.

To raise public awareness and promote education of AIDS, St. Philip will be hosting a World AIDS Day Ecumenical Prayer Service at 7 p.m. today.

During the service, the congregation will recognize people who have died of AIDS and their families. At the end of the service, each member of the congregation will light a candle in memory of an AIDS victim.

The AIDS Ministry also hopes to inform many people who have misconceptions about who suffers from the virus.

"I think AIDS, primarily when it was first discovered, people believed it was a gay disease," Patterson said, adding that the virus can be transmitted to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, race, or any other factors.

"John" said that whenever anyone learns about a person having AIDS, he or she assumes the person is a homosexual or a drug addict.

"Now, I pretty much don't tell anybody," he said.

Patterson said the stigma also often leads family members to shun someone in their family afflicted with AIDS.

"Some individuals that I knew that had AIDS, their families wouldn't even come to visit them," he said.

And often, Patterson said, people who think they may be afflicted with HIV or AIDS do not come forward or report their symptoms to doctors because they fear how their family and friends will react.

There have been 554 cases of AIDS reported in Clayton County since 1981, according to the Georgia Public Health Department. And many more cases in the county probably go unreported, said Sandy Boshart, a Clayton County case manager for AID Atlanta.

Boshart helps those afflicted with the virus get the proper health care and medications they need. Often, he said, people with the virus do not come to his organization because they are "in denial" and avoid getting tested.

"The mental part of the disease is the biggest problem," he said.

Boshart said that many people in the growing Clayton County are still not open to discussions of AIDS or homosexuality.

"Often, (AIDS sufferers) don't feel free to be very open about these things," he said.

When people with AIDS or HIV do not get tested, they often continue engaging in risky behaviors and possibly transmitting the virus to others, Boshart said.

The Clayton County Health Department offers free testing for anyone in the county and provides medication and medical advice for free.

The Georgia AIDS Coalition said 27,144 cases of AIDS have been reported in the state since 1981 and those cases resulted in 14,503 deaths.

The Atlanta region accounted for 18,294 of those reported cases.

The state numbers included 17,405 blacks and, 9,012 whites, 632 Hispanics and 95 others. By sex, it breaks down to 22,225 men and 4,919 women. There have been 211 children with AIDS reported in that period, resulting in 116 deaths.

The way the disease was contracted in the state are 12,678 men who had sex with men, 4,552 injecting drug users, 3,722 heterosexual cases, 1,436 men who had sex with other men and were injecting drugs, 396 receipt of blood, components or tissue, 200 children born to mothers with or at risk of HIV infection and three other and unknown reasons.

Tens of thousands of activists and health workers rallied worldwide Monday to mark World AIDS Day, and officials hailed new initiatives, new funding and a new pill to fight the disease that has infected 40 million people and kills more than 8,000 every day.

The World Health Organization and UNAIDS promised cheaper drugs, simpler treatment regimens and more money as part of a campaign launched in Nairobi to provide 3 million HIV-infected people with the latest drugs available by the end of 2005 in a $5.5 billion effort.

WHO also certified an innovative, generic drug for treating HIV that combines three essential anti-retroviral drugs into one pill to be taken twice a day. WHO and UNAIDS promised to promote international agreements to streamline treatment programs.

(The Associated Press contributed the worldwide information to this story).