Kansas, K-State, AIDS: how the disease has impacted our communities

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It has been 25 years since Dec. 1 was globally dubbed World Aids Day by officials of the Global Programme on AIDS, now UNAIDS. All these years later, acquired immune deficiency syndrome continues to affect the lives of millions of people around the world.

According to the World Health Organization, since the beginning of the epidemic nearly 35 million people have died due to AIDS-related causes worldwide. The epidemic was first reported on in the early 80s, and WHO reports that over 34 million people are currently infected with HIV/AIDS globally. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention also predicts that there are over 1 million Americans that are currently living with AIDS, and at least 50,000 cases of people newly infected with HIV/AIDS will be reported by the end of this year.

Last year, the Annual Kansas HIV/AIDS Report conducted by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, reported a total of 26 prevalent cases of HIV/AIDS in Riley County. Among all 105 counties in Kansas, Riley County ranked 11th in the number of prevalent HIV/AIDS cases. Sedgwick County had the highest number of prevalent HIV/AIDS cases in the state with 684, followed by Johnson County, Wyandotte County, Shawnee County and Douglas County. The identities and contact information of the people affected with AIDS in each county are kept confidential by KDHE.

“Confidential name-based reporting has been in place since 2000 and continues to be utilized,” Miranda Steele, communications director of KDHE, said. “Under Kansas statues, both the provider ordering the test and the laboratory processing the test are responsible for reporting.”

Don Carrel, a 1973 K-State graduate and author of “My Dream to Trample AIDS,” first contracted the HIV virus in 1981. Less than 2 percent of people who got infected with AIDS in 1981 are currently living.

“When I was first diagnosed with HIV [1985], I was told to get my affairs together, and that I would be sick in less than a year and dead in two,” Carrel said.

According to Charlisa Molemohi, Lafene Health Center health educator, HIV is first passed on if a person who is not infected engages in sexual activity or shares needles with a person who is infected. HIV then attacks a person’s immune system and after a person’s CD4 cell and white blood cell counts drop to less than 200, that person will then develop AIDS. It could take years before symptoms of the HIV virus start to surface.

“[HIV] takes over your body which leaves you more at risk for getting pneumonia or a common cold,” Molemohi said.”That’s what you end up getting sick from. You don’t die from AIDS, you die from a complication.”

In 1995, Carrel contracted pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, the most frequent cause of death for people with AIDS. After slowly recovering from PCP, Carrel began taking AIDS medication.

“One of the biggest things you worry about is being able to pay for your treatment,” Carrel said. “It’s expensive and the medication has terrible side effects, I almost died three times from a bad reaction. It also causes psychological effects.”

Dr. Dennis R. Howard was Carrel’s best friend and a former K-State tenured veterinary professor who was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and died of pneumonia in 1988. Howard was put on AIDS medication after his diagnosis, but later forewent all treatment after experiencing uncomfortable side effects and AIDS related dementia.

Howard drew statewide attention when he accused K-State officials of discrimination after he was medically retired from his job. According to university archives, Howard claimed that his office would often be rigorously disinfected with bleach, he was often monitored by K-State staff when he would use staff bathrooms and was allegedly misled by staff into signing personnel documents. The case was soon dismissed by the Kansas Commission on Civil Rights for lack of probable cause. In response, K-State adapted the K-State Guideline for AIDS, ARC and AIDS Virus in 1986, where the university stated proper protocol if a student, staff or faculty member was diagnosed with AIDS. The guidelines where later modified in 1989 and are still practiced today by K-State officials.

“We don’t treat anyone differently,” Molemohi said. “We keep everyone’s medical records confidential, and do not discriminate in any way.”

Molemohi went on to explain that the best way to protect yourself from contacting AIDS is to not share needles, practice safe sex and get tested.

“There are a lot of different tests, like urine, oral and blood, with blood being the most effective in detecting HIV/AIDS,” Molemohi said. “Not everyone should get tested but if you are exposing yourself and putting yourself at risk than you should get tested. ”

There is still no cure for AIDS, yet young adults tend still to have misconceptions over the virus.

“The biggest misconception they have is that it can’t happen to me,” Carrel said. “HIV has no cure, it impacts your ability to date, get married, impacts one’s ability to have kids.”

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