The 21st World AIDS Day celebration in Hartford was part celebration, part memorial and part call-to-action.
“For many of us World AIDS Day is every day,” Shawn Lang, executive director of the Connecticut AIDS Resource Coalition, said Tuesday morning. And while there were victories to celebrate, Lang said there are still obstacles to overcome.
Those gathered at the Connections Drop-In Center Tuesday celebrated President Barack Obama’s decision to lift the 22-year-old ban on entry into the United States for anyone infected with HIV/AIDS.
Hartford Councilperson Luis Cotto said the decision is good news for the city’s African refugees who have friends or family seeking to gain entry into the United States.
But Cotto warned that as far as the HIV/AIDS epidemic is concerned just because the numbers of new cases have remained steady, “doesn’t mean things are getting better, they just stopped getting worse.”
He said in Hartford and Connecticut new cases of HIV/AIDS continue to be highest in the Hispanic population. Although Hispanic account for approximately 12 percent of the state population, they account for almost 35 percent of the people who become infected with HIV/AIDS. In Hartford the numbers are even higher. Hispanics make up 44 percent of Hartford’s population and nearly 43 percent make up new HIV/AIDS cases.
Nearly 20,000 people in Connecticut are estimated to be living with HIV; and up to 30 percent are unaware they have the disease. The state also ranks 14th in the nation in AIDS cases per capita.
State Health Care Advocate Kevin Lembo, who used to work at an HIV/AIDS drop-in center and clinic in Albany, New York before coming to Connecticut, said “the face of the disease has changed over time, but it still kills our communities.”
“And it doesn’t have that Hollywood feel anymore,” Lembo said referring to a time when you couldn’t watch an award show without seeing a red ribbon on a celebrity.
For Lembo, World AIDS Day is a commitment to never forget.
World AIDS Day is also a “celebration of my life,” Charna Teasley said.
“Shy of 30 years ago I was diagnosed and back then there weren’t many services, there was no World AIDS Day, there was none of this.” She said it’s because of the services she received that she’s able to stand there today.
But under Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s recent budget mitigation plan those services begin to disappear, Lang said.
Lang called Rell’s proposal “Machiavellian” and said the cuts “will cause irreparable harm to many of the state’s most vulnerable citizens.”
Rell’s proposal call for slashing AIDS services and syringe exchange programs, for which there is no federal funding, by 25 percent. “We are at the point where the number of people living with HIV/AIDS has doubled over the last decade yet funding has never even come close to keeping pace,” Lang said.
“We fully understand the nature of the state’s fiscal crisis and are willing to share our part of the burden along with everyone else, but not a disproportionate share,” Lang said.
The legislature will have to approve Rell’s proposed cuts Dec. 15 in order for them to take affect.