HIV/AIDs in Champaign-Urbana

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AS MANY OF US KNOW, HIV/AIDS has become a major epidemic
in Africa. In 2007, the UN estimated that about 1.9
million people were newly infected with HIV in sub-Saharan
Africa. We see many billboards and other media
reminding us about this distressing fact, often urging us to
buy something in order to help Africans in their impoverished
and destitute land. Bono’s Product Red campaign
comes to mind, with companies such as Starbucks, the
Gap, and Apple donating a small portion of their earnings
to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa.
Yet, HIV/AIDS doesn’t just happen in Africa. It’s an epidemic
across the world that even includes developed
countries like our own. In fact, our own capitol’s health
officials have just released a report stating that 3% of
Washington D.C. residents are infected with HIV/AIDS.
That may not sound like much, but it’s actually a higher
rate than is currently suffered in West Africa. Still, this percentage
is only the diagnosed cases—health officials admit
that the number may actually be much higher. The pervasive
image of the HIV-positive, starving African is not only
paternalistic and condescending; it also blinds us to the
fact that we have the very same issues to deal with in our
own country, and even in our own community. Regrettably,
our tendency to focus our charitable efforts overseas
often diverts attention from the struggles of our own.
In reality, HIV/AIDS is a growing problem, even in the
State of Illinois. According to the Centers for Disease Control,
in 2005 Illinois ranked 7th highest in the nation for
reported cases of AIDS. The Illinois Department of Public
Health estimates that, as of December 2008, Champaign
County has at least 300 residents living with HIV or AIDS.
The number of reported HIV/AIDS cases in Champaign-
Urbana are rising, but unfortunately, we often don’t
see people combating this issue on billboards or TV. We
see examples of stigmatization instead of support. Examples
include the new laws implemented around the world
(including developed countries) that stigmatize HIV by
criminalizing the transmission of the virus. Not only that,
mainstream opinion still tends to frame HIV as a disease
almost exclusively reserved for gays, when that is simply
not true. The reality is that, though HIV transmission rates
are still highest among men who have unprotected sex
with other men, the rates of transmission are quickly rising
with other behaviors, such as unprotected heterosexual
sex and intravenous drug use.
Fortunately, there is help available to HIV-positive people
in our own community. As much as there is to criticize
about our nation’s health care system, it does lend some
support to the HIV-positive individuals (whether that aid
is enough is a topic for another article entirely).
Locally, we have an organization that exclusively helps
HIV-positive individuals. The Greater Community AIDS
Project (GCAP) was conceived almost 25 years ago in
Champaign-Urbana. GCAP is a non-profit organization
that seeks to support those living with HIV/AIDS. For
instance, GCAP provides food through the Eastern Illinois
Food Bank to families who have been affected by
HIV/AIDS. The organization also has an Emergency
Assistance Program which helps HIV-positive individuals
pay for such necessities as housing, utilities, medication,
and transportation. GCAP also owns two houses, the
Champaign and the State Street House, which are used to
house HIV-positive individuals until they can care for
GCAP also reaches out to the public by hosting two
annual events with which community members can easily
get involved. One is a Holiday Gala, which helps raise
money for the organization. The other is the more wellknown
Artists Against AIDS. This yearly event raises
money for and awareness about those living with
HIV/AIDS in Champaign-Urbana.
This year’s event will be held at the Orpheum Museum
from April 24-27th. Local artists will donate their works
for sale and the proceeds will benefit GCAP, in turn assisting
hundreds of area HIV-positive individuals and their
families. Mike Benner, GCAP’s Outreach/Interim office
manager, says Artists Against AIDS “helps to bring HIV
and AIDS to people’s attention. It reminds them that
HIV/AIDS isn’t a disease happening in some far off corner
of the world or even just in major metropolitan areas of the
United States. There are hundreds of individuals here in
East Central Illinois who are HIV-positive and in need of
some sort of supportive services. Artists Against AIDS,
which is a volunteer-run event, gives testimony to the
compassion of people throughout our community.”
HIV/AIDS is a worldwide epidemic and Africa as a
whole remains the most hard-hit area of the world in terms
of how quickly the disease is spreading. I’m not arguing
against Americans who are trying to help stop the devastation
in Africa. However, too often, that sort of philanthropy
can easily be twisted into a manipulative marketing
ploy, or an ego boost, or perhaps most egregiously, a blinder
to the fact that HIV/AIDS is a real problem in our own
community too.
For more information about HIV/AIDS in Champaign-
Urbana or about Artists Against AIDS visit

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