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‘It hasn’t just gone away’

Benefit reminds public that AIDS is still real
From left, Tracy Bigelow, Sarah Donaldson, trailing, Jennifer Stucka and Denae Benally take part in a 5-kilometer fun run/walk as part of the 17th annual Durango AIDS Awareness Benefit on Saturday afternoon at Rotary Park.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that there are 1 million people living in the U.S. with HIV.

On Saturday, a crowd gathered at Rotary Park to raise HIV/AIDS awareness and celebrate healthy living with a 1.6- or 5-kilometer run or walk, part of the 17th annual AIDS Benefit.

Sandy Thornton-Cooper said it helped her remember her friends she’s lost to the disease.

Autumn leaves highlighted the park’s grass as organizers and supporters shared in hugs and conversations before trotting north on the Animas River Trail in waves.

About 25 people – and a few dogs – took to the trail.

Because Durango is a smaller town, residents may not be aware of how many people are affected by HIV/AIDS, said Thornton-Cooper, who was volunteering with the event.

“I’ve lost five of my friends already,” she said. “I have four friends who are HIV-positive that live here. Just because it’s not in the front of the news, it still exists. It hasn’t just gone away.”

Barbara Balaguer, chairwoman of 4CGLAD, the Four Corners Gay and Lesbian Alliance for Diversity, said it’s about shedding light for the public.

“We want to be proactive about getting the information out there,” she said. “It’s a transmitted disease, and it isn’t just a gay and lesbian disease – it can infect anyone. What we’ve learned, most importantly, is that it’s a preventable disease.”

Balaguer said the benefit reaches out.

“We’re creating opportunities for people who might not know where to find the right information,” she said before her run.

Jeff Basinger represented Western Colorado Aids Project, a patient advocacy group for people on the Western Slope dealing with what he called a “life-altering disease that is 100 percent preventable.”

With 250 cases in 40,000 square miles, Basinger said WETSCAP is the expert that links patients to community resources.

“WESTCAP is the organization that nobody knows about until they need us,” he said. “When a person hears those four words – you have tested positive – they flip out. All of the sudden, it’s stigma and discrimination. ‘How am I going to tell, who am I going to tell and how do I afford $3,000 a month in medical bills?’

“There’s a lot the public needs to know about this,” he said. “Twenty-five percent of new infections (in the U.S.) are in people under 24. Eighty percent of the youths infected don’t even know it.”

Basinger also said demographics on the Western Slope differ from metropolitan Denver. Patients here are 30 percent female, 30 percent Hispanic and 12 percent intravenous. Ten percent of infections are in heterosexual males.

That’s why benefits are important, he said.

“It’s an opportunity to remind people that we’re not done with this yet,” he said.

After the run, prizes were awarded for best costumes and most funds raised.

Deb Nielsen, event coordinator, said the message is clear.

“AIDS is preventable,” she said. “It’s something everyone should be aware of. We have people living in our community with HIV, and we want to help support them. Their lives matter to us.”

bmathis@durangoherald.com

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