Candle vigil at courthouse to remember AIDS victims

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— For a world with 36.1 million people living with HIV or AIDS, a country with over 400,000 AIDS deaths and a state that reports a 20-year total of 7,272 AIDS cases, Routt County's numbers might seem like a drop of water in an ocean of AIDS victims.

But, it is still touched by the disease.

"In Routt County, there's a small amount (of AIDS and HIV cases) if you look at the numbers. With small numbers you think it can't happen to me, but it can," Amy Dickson said at the Planned Parenthood Center. "It's a problem whether it's five or 10 it's a problem."

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first case of AIDS in 1981, seven people in Routt County have been diagnosed with AIDS and 10 with HIV.

In her five years as manager, Dickson said not one test has come back positive for HIV or AIDS at Planned Parenthood, which averages a testing rate of five people per week. In the statistics complied by Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment, Routt County's numbers did not budge in 2000 from 1999's all-time totals of seven AIDS cases and 10 HIV cases.

The department has not reported a single AIDS death in the county since the epidemic began, but Colorado has had over 4,000 AIDS related deaths since 1985.

Today, a candle vigil will be held at the County Courthouse lawn to remember the victims of the disease as part of the World Health's World AIDS Day observation. Held before the official day on Dec. 1, the vigil is sponsored by Steamboat's Visiting Nurses Association and Planned Parenthood and intends to increase awareness of the worldwide remembrance.

After 20 years, the face of the AIDS epidemic has changed as HIV patients prolong full blown AIDS through antiretroviral drugs and the demographics shift among those recently infected with AIDS or HIV.

For 2001, the United States chose to focus its World AIDS Day on the alarming infection rate of the younger population. That is a concern shared by the local VNA and Planned Parenthood.

"That is the group that we in this community continue to spotlight. They are the most sexually active. There's recreational drug use and needles. We are telling them not to put themselves in danger," Kay Borvansky, of the VNA, said.

In Colorado, 42 percent of all recently diagnosed AIDS or HIV cases among heterosexuals were from the 20 to 29 age group and eight percent were between 13 and 19 years old. Ironically, the under-29 group that make up 50 percent of the heterosexual population that have been recently diagnosed with HIV or AIDS might also be the age group most educated on the subject.

"I'm really impressed with how knowledgeable (the students) were in HIV and AIDS. They knew the kind of distinctions between HIV and AIDS and the four ways it's transmitted," Joan Allsberry, a former health teacher at Steamboat Springs High School, said.

As AIDS spread throughout the late 80's, schools began implementing programs that discussed ways HIV could be transmitted and prevented. Allsberry began teaching a two-class AIDS unit at Steamboat High School in 1997. Before her health class discussed the disease, science classes had the responsibility of educating students.

Even though the students know the basic facts of AIDS, Allsberry said some still put themselves in risky situations. She points to drugs and alcohol as playing a crucial role in the younger population making risky decisions.

"It's an important discussion. We talk about alcohol and other drugs, addressing how you're a lot more vulnerable to allow things when intoxicated and forget promises you made to yourself. It's a huge part of the discussion," she said.

Dickson stresses the importance for the younger age group to get tested for HIV or AIDS and said the sooner victims know they are infected the sooner they can start treatment to prolong the devastating effects of full-blown AIDS.

Planned Parenthood has opened its doors for free HIV and AIDS testing for males and females and physicians can also perform the test. Dickson said its important to note that just because someone has had blood work done or donated blood does not mean they have been tested for HIV or AIDS.

Although only 17 cases of AIDS or HIV have been diagnosed in Routt County, Borvansky and Dickson said it is hard to track the case numbers of people living with AIDS in the area. Since 1985, laboratories or physicians have had to report AIDS and HIV cases to the state's health department.

But if a person is diagnosed with the disease in the county, Borvansky said it does not mean they still live there.

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