When AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati (AVOC) was founded in 1983, in response to the first AIDS-related death in the area, most thought the agency would exist for maybe a couple years. Then a cure would be found and the crisis would be over.
Move ahead 20 years. In the United States alone, between 800,000 and 900,000 people are infected with HIV or AIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The latest information available tells us 438,795 Americans have died from the illness.
Around the world, approximately 15,000 people become infected every day, half of them younger than age 24. Clearly, the crisis is far from over as AVOC marks its 20th anniversary.
"AIDS will be our reality for the foreseeable future," says Victoria Brooks, who has been with the agency for nine years. "Some believe the AIDS crisis is over. In reality, it's still an epidemic that is affecting 36 million people throughout the world and up to 6,000 men, women and children here in Cincinnati, many of whom are unaware they are infected with the HIV virus."
In April, AVOC will launch a capital campaign to bring the business community together in the fight against HIV and AIDS. The goal is to raise $1 million to support programs that assist people affected by the virus and educate people at risk for infection.
Raising the money might not be an easy. For the past several years AIDS hasn't received the attention it got in the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Many believe AIDS has now turned into a manageable illness.
"With ever-improving medicines and therapies, people with AIDS are living longer, healthier lives," Brooks says, "That's the good news. The bad news, though, is that these people need strong support networks to battle the disease, and resources are limited for that support."
Additional resources might be coming from the federal government. For the 2004 fiscal budget, President Bush has proposed $16 billion for the fight against HIV/AIDS in the United States.
The struggle will also receive some additional media attention. Viacom — the media giant that includes CBS, MTV, Black Entertainment Television, UPN and Infinity Broadcasting — is developing a campaign to educate viewers about AIDS. HIV/AIDS themes are being developed for some mainstream television shows, including Becker, The District and One on One. The campaign will continue for more than a year.
Hopefully the effort will also focus on the changing face of the illness, which 20 years ago was considered a mostly gay white men's disease.
City Councilman John Cranley attended a Feb. 25 AVOC press conference.
"Twenty years ago I was only 8 years old, and the first person I remember dying from AIDS was Rock Hudson," Cranley said.
Today AVOC's clients are impoverished people of color, with nearly 70 percent of the new clients — including families and children — making an income of $10,000 or less a year. But that is not the only face of this illness.
"There are so many misconceptions and stereotypes about what the 'face of AIDS' looks like", says Elizabeth Turnbull, president of the AVOC Board of Directors. "There is no one face. It is a 16-year-old boy sexually abused by his uncle. A college-educated, 45-year-old African American woman, infected by her ex-husband, who has since remarried. A 26-year-old white woman with a husband and a child. These people and a thousand more are clients of AVOC and they need our help every day."
It's time for the city to make AIDS awareness a part of the city's agenda, according to Vice Mayor Alicia Reece.
"When we think back on the last 20 years, it's not really a celebration that we're marking," she said. "I think it marks that it's a more serious time for the illness. It's time for a new partnership for AVOC and Cincinnati — and not from afar."
AVOC serves 13 counties in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. AVOC serves more than 1,500 people living with HIV/AIDS and their families, offering education, financial aid, support groups, home health care coordination and other services. For more information, visit www.avoc.org or call 513-421-2437. ©