Champaign-Urbana community and students help those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS

By Ali Braboy

It has been 33 years since HIV was first identified, but the virus that causes AIDS continues to impact people today. Monday was World AIDS Day, and currently, Illinois is ranked the sixth highest state in number of AIDS cases in America, with over 30,000 total cases of the virus occurring, according to the Illinois Department

of Public Health.

Joe Trotter, prevention lead agent at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, said Illinois could be ranked high because there are more facilities for individuals with AIDS to get tested in Illinois than other states. Trotter said Illinois has good access to HIV treatment, and he has heard of cases where people have tested HIV-positive in another state and moved to Illinois to receive better care.

Another factor, Trotter said, could be from the large number of individuals living in Chicago — more people means a larger likelihood of individuals with diseases, he added.

About 53 percent of those diagnosed with AIDS in Illinois have died since 1981, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The department also stated that in Champaign County there were 442 individuals with HIV (non-AIDS) and 525 individuals with AIDS as of Dec. 31, 2013.

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The Greater Community AIDS Project of East Central Illinois is a local organization that helps individuals with HIV and AIDS in 10 counties, including Champaign.

Mike Benner, executive director of the organization, said the group is focused on working with individuals diagnosed with HIV and AIDS so they can live more empowered lives. He explained that this is done by helping people through a variety of means, such as transitional housing, emergency assistance, food programs and education. 

The group encourages people to get tested to find out their status, and if they test positive, to get treatment immediately. Benner said it is critical that when individuals receive treatment for HIV that they adhere to it.

“If you become virally suppressed, which is the goal of treatment, there is no reason why HIV should be a factor in pervading you from doing anything you want to do,” Benner said.

The Greater Community AIDS Project works closely with the C-U Public Health District, and fills in the gaps where people most need help. This includes getting people bus passes and helping someone fix their car so they are able to make doctor appointments.

The Special Populations’ Student Health Concerns Committee presented a World AIDS Day film and answered questions Tuesday at the Illini Union. Dominic Gentile, junior in LAS, said the organization is a registered student organization sponsored by McKinley Health Center, and its goal is to spread health information that is applicable to diverse student populations on campus.

The film was created by the group and includes an interview with Benner, who discussed where individuals can get tested in east central Illinois. 

Gentile said the group tries to educate and raise awareness about the disease so that they can help people who have been affected by it. 

“It’s good for people to be aware of the risks that you take when you can engage in risky behavior,” Gentile said.

The group will also host an AIDS discussion Wednesday at the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center at noon. 

Ali can be reached at [email protected].