Today - on this World AIDS day - in Ohio there are about 16,000 identified cases of people living with HIV/AIDS. However, that number changes significantly when you consider that an estimated 20% of the people infected with the disease aren't aware that they have it.
Bill Hardy, CEO of AIDS Resource Center Ohio, says that number - 20% - applies locally - state wide and nationally. That's more than 3000 undetected cases of HIV in Ohio and another 220,000 nation-wide. The biggest rise in HIV infection rates right now is among adolescents and young adults, but Hardy says it's still a disease that affects most everyone
"It' all over the place, you know. It continues to be a disease of youth. That is newly diagnosed individuals, half of them are ages twenty-four or younger. But, having said that, one of the fastest growing demographics is also people age 50 and older. Those are people who are ageing with HIV or who are newly diagnosed with HIV. You know believing they're at a certain age, if they are female they don't use birth control, they think their at low risk. So it's older, it's younger, it's male, it's female. It continues to be a disease that affects mostly gay and bi-sexual males black, Hispanic and white. And the highest percentage of those folks who are HIV infected but still don't know their diagnosis are gay and bi-sexual males both black and white," says Hardy
Hardy says they'll continue to target those high risk groups though funding for prevention and testing remains the biggest challenge for healthcare providers and groups like ARC.
"The challenge is that dollars for HIV testing and prevention are always the flea on the tail of the dog. They're the hardest to get, they're the most controversial in terms of politics. Folks don't want their dollars going to prevention, education or youth to buy condoms or supplies, and so we continue to fight the battle," says Hardy.
The other big factor is raising the level of HIV awareness among a population that has become complacent, whether they think there beyond the point of risk, like the older group Hardy mentioned, or they're young people growing up in an age where HIV/AIDS isn't considered the death sentence it once was. Ben Adams is in that group. He's 23 and the Empowerment Coordinator at ARC. He runs a social group young gay, bi-sexual and questioning men 18 - 29.
"It's really just a generational gap," says Adams. "And so we never knew the days where people would die six or twelve months after they got a diagnosis. Most of our guys are online or reading a magazine and there's an HIV medication ad, and there's a healthy attractive guy in his thirties who takes one pill a day and they're fine. So I think a lot of our guys don't have the same sense of urgency or don't worry about it so much. They view it as a manageable condition, that if they get it they take one pill a day and they'll be fine."
Adams says that overcoming that mindset is not an easy task.
"We really just try to relate to them on their level. We always kind of ask 'What's their understanding of whatever topic we're discussing, whether it's HIV or another health issue, and then just kind of relate how it affects them directly and point out that whatever perception they have might be a mainstream perception and just lay out the realities of where things are specifically with HIV and AIDS."
Ben Adams says the importance of projects like ARC's empowerment program can't be understated, and like Bill Hardy, knows the challenge of funding those programs. But he also had this to say:
"And I think a lot of it's just interpersonal, weather that's self-esteem building or that empowerment element that we like to push. You know, we can give people a thousand condoms - more than they would ever use during a lifetime, but if they don't feel like they're worth something, that their life matters, they're not really gonna use them."