AIDS in the Heartland is the theme the Chicago Department of Public Health ( CDPH ) is using to spearhead a yearlong, comprehensive strategic campaign to battle complacency about the disease. Using a traveling photo exhibit and the exhibit's companion book, The Faces of AIDS— Personal Stories from the Heartland, the CDPH is coordinating an 11-state regional effort to raise consciousness that in America's heartland AIDS is still an emergency. The photo exhibit and the first edition of the book were unveiled at the first AIDS public policy meeting to focus on the Midwest experience.
Designed to create a living portrait of people living with the AIDS in the Midwest, the AIDS in the Heartland project also seeks to create a Midwestern momentum to support reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act Program. The current Ryan White legislation expires Sept. 30. Although in mid June the U.S. Senate passed Ryan White unanimously, the House has only 30 legislative days to act before the legislation expires. As this is an election year, advocates are anxious to get the legislation passed before the fall elections. It's uncertain what the political make up of the next Congress will be.
The first edition of The Faces of AIDS—Personal Stories from the Heartland has about 30 stories of people living with disease or who have become advocates because AIDS has impacted their lives. When the CDPH reconvenes the AIDS in the Heartland policy forum next year, a second edition will more stories, to total around 100, will be released. Producers of the book describe it as "a living AIDS Quilt."
A dynamic underscoring of the broad sweep of AIDS occurred when Frank Oldham, the Assistant Commissioner CDPH, opened the AIDS in the Heartland meeting and revealed, "I need to disclose that as an African-American gay may living with HIV, I, too am the face of AIDS." Oldham related that, "About five years ago, I finally took the test. The results were positive. Although I'm infected, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Not only am I living a time when we can actually help people with HIV staying healthy and living longer, but my body has yet to show signs of immune deterioration."
Oldham then elaborated, "The truth remains that we are still fighting a war. People are still dying. And in an era when we have treatments that can extend life and improve health but lack the political will to ensure that people have the care they need, these deaths in the year 2000 somehow strike me as even more outrageous than those that came before."
"There's a misunderstanding still that's out there that AIDS is now a chronic condition and that it's no longer a deadly disease," explained Tracy Fishman, director of Policy and Legislative affairs for CDPH. "The take-home message for us is that AIDS is still a crisis. People still are dying. More people are getting infected. People who are infected have an incredible amount of needs. It's the Ryan White Care Act that gets these needs met."
According to the advocacy group Cities Advocating Emergency AIDS Relief ( CAEAR ) , federal studies indicate that over a quarter million HIV-infected people receive no medical treatment. Ryan White services have proved to be effective by being a safety net for 500,000 people. Furthermore, it's reduced AIDS mortality by 70 percent and curbed mother-to-child transmissions of HIV by 70 percent. Ryan White Care Act services are critical because it reduces HIV-related hospital admissions by 30 percent nationally, says CAEAR.
At the Heartland conference, Greg Harris explained the shift in the complexion of the AIDS pandemic when he said instead of talking about the ravages of the disease and death, the conversation needs to turn to the "ravages of care."
A real-life example of the "ravages of care," La Toya Rodgers, 11, of Gary, Ind., told conference attendees about the more than 100 pills she takes weekly to live with AIDS, which has impacted her since birth.
Paul French, a youth prevention worker from Indianapolis, Ind. who attended the Heartland conference, explained that the rural character of much of the Midwest is a key element for the region's deep denial around AIDS. French said he couldn't imagine the consequences that would occur if Ryan White reauthorization weren't passed.
Ryan White's mother Jeanne White attended the Heartland conference. Outlines/BLACKlines' photographer Israel Wright's work appears in the Faces of AIDS book.