HIV and AIDS resource groups aim to fight stigmas

KATELYN HIBBARD/Sun-Gazette Several community members, many of them clergy members, gather to pray for love, healing and understanding during a candlelight vigil held Friday at St. Luke Lutheran Church in remembrance of those who battled HIV or AIDS as well as to raise awareness about the battles those living with HIV or AIDS still face.

Stigmas and ignorance still run rampant in rural Pennsylvania when it comes to people living with HIV or AIDS, said Jay Grandis, a founding member of the central Pennsylvania chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP.

To fight stereotypes, raise awareness and remember loved ones and strangers alike who battled HIV or AIDS in life, the coalition partnered with AIDS Resource to hold two remembrance services Friday.

“In rural Pennsylvania, we who are living with HIV still deal with a staggering amount of stigma and discrimination — even though, for the rest of the world, the year is now 2017,” Grandis said.

Over a dozen people from all walks of life braved the cold for a candlelight vigil at St. Luke Lutheran Church, with several offering up prayers for love, healing and understanding.

Grandis, who has been living with HIV for 11 years, spoke after the vigil and the advances in modern medicine that may help curb stereotypes.

“It is now possible for an HIV-negative person to take one pill, once per day, that is highly effective in preventing them from acquiring HIV,” he said.

The medication is called Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP. AIDS Resource, 500 W. Third St., offers the free, monthly PrEP clinic where exams, prescriptions and follow-up care are covered — a move which should be applauded, Grandis said.

Another break through for the HIV community is the concept of “Undetectable = Untransmittable,” or the idea that a person on antiretroviral medication who maintains an undetectable viral load for six months or longer poses zero risks to their HIV-negative sexual partner, he said.

The concept has been endorsed by more than 500 organizations across 67 countries, one of which is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Grandis added.

“This is based on overwhelming evidence from multiple medical science studies conducted over years in multiple countries,” he said. “This will do wonders in assisting us to dismantle stigma.”

The coalition is hoping to further distribute the latest medical information via its website, www.actupcentralpa.org, and by holding educational programs at local schools, Grandis said.

While Grandis spoke to the medical aspect of living with HIV or AIDS, Dan Maneval, who has been active in the local LGBTQ community since the 1970s, shared personal stories that showed how things have changed since HIV first appeared in the United States in the early 1980s.

“It spread like wildfire,” he said. “Nobody knew how to fight this disease. Nobody knew what it was.”

Maneval said a dear friend contracted the disease and ended up with pneumonia on top of it. Maneval went to visit his dying friend in the hospital, and was forced to dress in full surgical gear complete with a mask. He was not allowed to touch his friend for fear of AIDS spreading.

“Look at all the misconceptions. I couldn’t touch him, I couldn’t say goodbye to him,” Maneval said. “Now we know better.”

Another ceremony was held earlier Friday at the New Covenant United Church of Christ, with about 40 attendees and the Rev. Brad Walmer officiating. The service offered time for reflection and those who wished to light candles in honor of friends and family afflicted by HIV or AIDS.

Grandis said he was heartened by the day’s overall attendance, considering both events were established with short notice. He hopes to make the vigils annual and is looking for volunteers for the coalition. He can be contacted at 570-428-2766.

“We need to love one another and accept one another as they are at that moment in time,” Grandis said. “Especially those who need our understanding and help more than others.”

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