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TURNOUT SMALL, BUT COMMITTED FOR AIDS VIGIL

Dec. 1, 2003 – It was hard to say whether stigma, discrimination or apathy accounted for the sparse turnout Monday night for the March Against AIDS and Candlelight Vigil organized by the AIDS Coalition of St. Thomas and St. John.
Fewer than a dozen people walked down Main Street carrying pink helium-filled balloons from Rothschild Francis "Market" Square to Emancipation Garden on St. Thomas, where they joined another two dozen mostly organizers, public officials, AIDS agency personnel and members of the St. Andrews Gospel Choir Pioneers for Christ, who sang for the event.
Simon Caines, marcher and executive director of the 25th Legislature, speculated that with far fewer people dying of AIDS, interest in the issue is not as strong.
Another marcher said of HIV/AIDS "it was a disease of the '80s and '90s." And for those who remember, the events in the early '90s filled the park to overflowing.
But some of the evening's speakers blamed "Stigma and Discrimination," the theme of this year's World AIDS Day, for the paltry turnout
Pat Odoms, who chairs the St. Thomas-St. John HIV planning committee, termed the small turnout "a testament to the work we still have to do in the territory." That work, she said, includes destroying "stigma and discrimination."
Sen. Lorraine Berry called for "honesty" in sexual relationships along with monogamy and abstinence. Saying she is "treading in dangerous waters when I make remarks about our cultural behaviors," she plunged on nevertheless, citing irresponsible sexual behavior as the reason for most of the HIV/AIDS cases in the Virgin Islands. She said there is little intravenous drug use in the territory. Crack cocaine, she said, is the drug of choice for most user, leaving shared needles out of the risky behavior model.
And, according to Lisa LaPlace, registered nurse with the Corrections Bureau, crack is not a drug that induces sexual desire, reinforcing Berry's assessment that "few can speak the truth when it comes to sex."
The solution, Berry said, is spiritual. And she wasn't alone in either call.
Keynote speaker Carmen George, HIV/AIDS outreach worker and community activist, said: "If you fail in the righteous ways of the church," the next best thing is to "live in the real world" and hand out condoms. While they aren't 100 percent safe, Berry said, they are 90 percent safer than using no protection.
A part-time health educator for the coalition agency HOPE (Helping Others in a Positive Environment) said she counsels teen-agers but mostly gives them condoms. She said that's why they come to the agency –"they're free." She added, "We do tell them [abstinence] is the better way" while handing out the condoms.
Acting Health Commissioner Darlene Carty was on hand with some chilling statistics: After Africa, where there are 25 million persons living with HIV/AIDS, the Caribbean has the fastest growing rate of HIV/AIDS in the world.
And, Carty said, with 35 to 40 new cases reported every year, the Virgin Islands is ranked the third-highest in the region. While morbidity has decreased, she said, the disease is still exacting a terrible toll. The highest-risk demographic groups, she said, are, first, heterosexual black men ages 30-39 and, second, men who have sex with men also black, also 30-39.
It's the highest-risk group that Ivy Moses, founder of HOPE, says she is trying to reach — "heterosexual adults who are infected and those who don't know their status." HOPE's mission is to reduce the rate of HIV/AIDS infection and to heighten awareness of the disease in the territory.
Few of the non-professionals in attendance said they actually know anyone living with AIDS. Two people said they were there because they have spouses in the choir.
The small attendance did not diminish the powerful call for compassion and understanding, however.
Kevin Rodriguez, the AIDS Coalition chair, brought his 11-year-old daughter, Brittaney, along to participate and to read a World AIDS Day poem.
"We don't even know who they are," Brittaney read.
"Some of them are us.
"Help me break the silence."
Several other activities are planned in the district this week to commemorate World AIDS Day. Click here for information on scheduled events.

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