Memorial raises awareness about HIV/AIDS

Ceremony promotes HIV/AIDS awareness

Dale Cox is HIV-positive. His husband, Cass Felps, is not.

The red-headed Baton Rouge couple that met years ago at a hardware store and recently married in Iowa were among dozens of people who gathered at North Boulevard Town Square on Sunday evening not only to remember those who have died of HIV/AIDS, but also to educate others about the virus and to encourage discussion about prevention, care and treatment.

“There’s still a lot of ignorance” about HIV/AIDS, Felps said.

As the happily married couple walked hand in hand along the streets of the city known as a hotbed for both the virus and the disease it can cause, Felps said his own family was not immune to the ignorance about HIV/AIDS. Once, at a family gathering, a person in attendance was concerned about using the bathroom after Cox — an archaic worry, Felps said.

“People need to understand what (HIV) is and how it’s contracted,” Felps said.

HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, can be passed on to others through some types of bodily fluids, usually through sex, intravenous drug use, blood transfusions, childbirth or, rarely, occupational exposure, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

AIDS, or the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is the final stage of the HIV infection. Many people who have HIV do not have AIDS, and if HIV is treated properly, those who carry the virus can live long lives.

“HIV is a chronic, livable condition,” said Tim Young, CEO of the HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two Inc., which put on Sunday evening’s event that included an eight-block walk and a candlelight memorial.

The key to living with HIV is catching it early and keeping up with the treatment, Young said, which for many people — including Cox — involves taking one pill daily.

About 5,000 HIV-positive people are living in the Baton Rouge area, Young said, and about half of those have AIDS.

In 2010 and 2011, the Baton Rouge metropolitan area had the highest per capita rate of new AIDS cases in the nation, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More recent information was not available Sunday.

For Baton Rouge to begin shedding its reputation as a hotbed for both the virus and the disease, health care workers first must find out about everyone who is infected with HIV. In addition to the roughly 5,000 people with HIV in the area, Young said there are estimated to be about 1,000 more who don’t know they carry the virus.

With proper treatment, though, the virus becomes “suppressed,” and carriers won’t spread it to others, Young said.

Addressing the city’s “staggering number” of people with HIV/AIDS, Mayor-President Kip Holden said people need to stop associating the virus with such negative stigmas. He also said he strongly opposed recent comments made by the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, Donald Sterling, in which the owner questioned why his girlfriend would take a picture with Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a former basketball star who retired from the NBA in 1991 after learning he contracted HIV.

Shortly after the walk Sunday evening, Felps said he doesn’t let his husband’s battle with HIV affect their relationship — not even when Cox first told him about it.

“I was so smitten, I didn’t care,” Felps said.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was changed May 19, 2014, to correct the spelling of Cass Felps’ name.