QUEENSBURY -- Advanced treatment and a decline in death rates have led people to believe HIV is no longer serious, a misconception stressed Monday at SUNY Adirondack during a lecture on AIDS awareness.
The misconception has led to new infections as people have unprotected sex, according to speakers at the event.
“A lot of people in our area don’t realize it’s here,” said Melissa Thomas of North Country Ryan White Program.
The program provides medical care and support to people infected with HIV, along with free testing.
While treatments and proper care allow people with HIV to live long and productive lives, no cure for HIV or AIDS exists. Adding to the problem is that too many people know too little about the disease.
“It is ... like a silent disease nowadays,” Thomas said.
Lynn Scott, a SUNY Adirondack student who lost her brother to AIDS in 1985, helped organize the lecture.
She spoke about her brother, Shannon, who at 25 was the first person with AIDS to die at Glens Falls Hospital.
Scott spoke last year to a small audience at a similar lecture at the college. Monday’s event drew about a dozen people, including three students and a handful of faculty members.
Scott said she hopes others at the college continue to raise AIDS awareness.
“The college can play a role in spreading awareness,” she said.
Across the nation, one in five people living with HIV are unaware of their infection. Yet that 20 percent is responsible for 50 percent of new infections, Thomas said.
New York has the highest infection rate in the country and there are people in the Glens Falls region with HIV or AIDS.
The latest data, collected by Centers for Disease Control in 2009 and presented at the lecture, showed 151 people in Warren County had HIV or AIDS; in Washington County, it was 349; and in Saratoga County, it was 517.
In this region, many people believe HIV or AIDS has not arrived, and it is stigmatized, Thomas said.
“It’s still not as accepted as in other parts of the world,” she said.
The lecture included a speaker who called himself “Jonathan,” who is dating an HIV-positive man, but did not want to give his last name for fear it would affect his massage therapy business.
Jonathan said he has been tested for HIV and the results were negative, and he continues to take precautions to avoid infection. He encouraged people to be tested.
“Get it once a year if you indulge in risky behavior,” he said.
Speakers stressed people don’t die of AIDS. The disease attacks the immune system, so it is unable to fight off the slightest illness, including a cold, which then causes death.
HIV is spread through vaginal, anal or oral sex without using a condom. It can spread through sharing needles, and when blood comes in contact with blood infected with the virus.
It can also spread through breast milk, officials said.
It cannot spread through casual contact, being near an infected person or mosquito bites, they said.
Thomas said pharmacies sell tests to check for HIV. The Ryan White program (named after the first child to become infected with HIV) offers free tests every other Saturday at Hudson Headwaters Health Network in Glens Falls.
The test is also suggested to patients during regular doctor visits, Thomas said.
Terry Lawrence, a SUNY Adirondack professor, said more reminders are needed to educate the public about HIV and AIDS.
“It saddens me that we do forget,” Lawrence said. “It’s a forgotten illness now, and I don’t want that to happen.”