A new generation tackles AIDS

From Santa Clara to South Africa, students help battle this epidemic.

It has been 25 years since the Centers for Disease Control identified the disease that would come to be known as AIDS. While half a million Americans have died from AIDS-related causes in that time, great progress has been made in education, prevention, funding, treatments, and a global response to the pandemic. And last year, through a new partnership between Santa Clara University and Catholic Relief Services, SCU students took on new responsibilities in battling the scourge of AIDS at home and abroad.

Working as interns with CRS and the Arrupe Partnerships, in 2005-06 SCU seniors Ruth Stanton and Tanya Landsberger developed a series of events to further education and awareness regarding HIV/AIDS throughout the world. Those events included a talk last spring by Donald Francis, the internationally renowned scientist who headed up the AIDS laboratory for the CDC in the early 1980s.

“I hope that your generation dealing with AIDS and subsequent outbreaks or problems within the community does it better than our generation,” Francis said firmly. This from a man who worked closely with French researchers to prove that HIV was the agent that caused AIDS, and who was one of the first to sound an early warning that the nation’s blood supply was at risk from HIV.

“Anytime one has an epidemic, one has to get in early to deal with it before the flames spread elsewhere. This is especially true of diseases that have long incubation periods,” Francis said.

From Santa Clara to South Africa

n the United States, an estimated 15,000 new cases of AIDS are diagnosed each year, a significant decrease from the 40,000 new cases diagnosed annually in the 1980s. In total, an estimated 400,000 people in the U.S. are living with AIDS.

Travel to South Africa, as SCU senior Joe Novotny did in 2005, and you’ll find a much bleaker picture in terms of the epidemic. While studying in Cape Town, Novotny volunteered at a children’s home that included orphans infected with HIV and others left parentless by AIDS.

The numbers in South Africa are staggering: Over 330,000 people have died from AIDS-related causes in the past year alone, more than in any other country in the world. One out of nine South Africans—over 5 million people—are HIV-positive. Among the complicating factors: South African President Thabo Mbeki’s support for scientists who dispute that HIV causes AIDS; and a slow rollout of antiretroviral treatment programs.

This year, Novotny and senior Kate Radvanyi are serving as CRS interns. Their goals: educate SCU students on the current state of HIV/AIDS in the community and on a global scale, as well as on ways people can get involved with HIV/AIDS issues.

“This epidemic is a threat to everyone’s future,” Novotny says, “We need to become active in our communities, educating other young people who see us as peers, and helping those who are HIV-positive fight stigma and seek needed treatment.”

In 2006, Santa Clara students founded a chapter of FACE AIDS, which strives to raise money to fight AIDS in Africa by selling pins made by African refugees. FACE AIDS was founded by a group of Stanford students in 2005, and Novotny notes that Santa Clara was one of the first schools to put on a FACE AIDS campaign.

One of the students who helped found the Santa Clara chapter is 20-year-old Nicole Belanger, of Washington, D.C. Belanger has participated in several outreach and education programs at SCU, including a program to distribute meals to terminally ill people in San Francisco through Project Open Hand.

Belanger took the fall 2006 quarter off from school to do AIDS work with children in Cape Town with the organization Volunteers for International Partnership. She sees work on AIDS as a fundamental responsibility. “With all of these advances,” Belanger says, “our generation is the first with the capability to make a change and challenge AIDS and the stigmas surrounding it head on.”

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