Area World AIDS Day events feature memorial quilt, speeches

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 2009

On Tuesday, World AIDS Day, a 1,200-square-foot section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt will be on display at George Mason University in Fairfax County.

More than 100 panels will be shown in a day-long commemoration as part of the school's HIV Awareness Week. The event will include a speech by Hydeia Broadbent, an international AIDS activist who was born HIV-positive. Broadbent, 25, was abandoned at a Las Vegas hospital and was not expected to live past age 5. She became a "test baby" for HIV medications and now advocates for awareness, prevention and treatment.

The George Mason event is one of many taking place in the Washington area. The Whitman-Walker Clinic will hold a candlelight vigil at 5:30 p.m. at Dupont Circle. The Metro D.C. LGBT Community Center will host several events, ending with an "Our Heroes" exhibit of 150 black-and-white photographs of people who have influenced the struggle against HIV/AIDS. And World AIDS Day at the World Bank will feature a panel of speakers, including the bank's president, Robert Zoellick, and the executive director of the Global Fund to fight HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

But George Mason's event will be among the largest, with more than 500 students assisting the layout of the AIDS Quilt at the Johnson Center and thousands expected to attend. Free HIV testing will be offered.

"Because Mason is one of the most diverse universities in the country and because of our close proximity to Washington, D.C., which has one of the nation's highest rates of HIV/AIDS incidence and mortality, this is an issue of particular importance to our university community," said Gary Kreps, chairman of GMU's communications department and one of the event's organizers. "We recognize the solemnity of this day and hope to educate people about the dangers of AIDS while also paying tribute to the millions who have died from the disease."

The District's HIV/AIDS prevalence rate, 3 percent, is widely regarded as the highest in the nation. Because the rate includes only about 15,000 tested and confirmed cases of the illness, health officials believe that the true rate would be 5 percent if people who have the disease but have not been tested were included.

Rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly chlamydia, on college campuses and in high schools are a sign that students continue to have unprotected sex, placing them at risk of contracting the AIDS virus, officials said. An STD increases the chances that the virus will be transmitted.

"There has been a lot of backsliding on AIDS prevention," Kreps said. "People have become more blasé about the threat of AIDS, saying there's a lot more treatment out there."

But health officials emphasize that AIDS continues to kill. And although people with HIV are living longer, many suffer debilitating chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, as they age. And there is no guarantee that people will not be resistant to medication.

As part of the GMU ceremony, students will read the names on the quilt's panels. The memorial quilt was started in 1987 in San Francisco as a reminder to the living to take precautions against AIDS. Today it has 40,000 panels, which includes more than 91,000 names, and measures nearly 1.3 million square feet and weighs more than 54 tons. World AIDS Day was established a year after the quilt to raise global awareness about HIV and AIDS.

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