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AIDS: An epidemic grown quiet

A lull in awareness heightens one man's determination to educate others


At present, Gary Archuleta doesnt see much urgency to - find a cure for HIV/AIDS. - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • At present, Gary Archuleta doesnt see much urgency to find a cure for HIV/AIDS.

A 9 a.m. health class at Fountain-Fort Carson High School starts in typical, lighthearted fashion with laughter, requests to borrow pens and occasional calls of "Shut up!"

Guest speaker Gary Archuleta ignores the commotion as he starts talking about sexually transmitted diseases. One in two people will catch an STD during their lifetimes, he says. He asks the students to look at a neighbor and consider that unpleasant fact.

The students giggle.

Archuleta then talks about AIDS. More than 2 million people died of complications from the disease last year, he says. About half of new cases each year are in people younger than 25, he explains, and 33.5 million people around the world have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

One million are Americans, he adds.

"Including myself."

And with those two words, the room falls into an attentive hush.

Archuleta, a volunteer with the Southern Colorado AIDS Project, or S-CAP, is used to that sort of response. He speaks to more than 100 school groups each year to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS at a time when the disease is sometimes treated as yesterday's epidemic.

It is not, Archuleta says.

Infection rates are holding steady, and many new cases are among young people who simply don't understand that using a condom correctly could have offered protection. Even with powerful drugs, people with HIV die from its complications.

For its part, S-CAP now provides support services to about 500 people in southern Colorado the largest number ever who are battling the disease. But funding for S-CAP, like most HIV outreach and research programs, peaked years ago.

The agency, which once had more than 20 workers, now employs 12, according to executive director Linda Boedeker. It closed its Alamosa office in 2004.

Once can be enough

Archuleta's story largely echoes the history of HIV/AIDS since it rose to national awareness in the 1980s.

The Colorado Springs native traces his infection to a single sexual encounter with an ex-girlfriend in 1993, when he was 21. He didn't know he had the disease for six more years, during which time he married and became the father to his wife's infant daughter.

When he learned he was infected, he and his wife, who somehow avoided the virus, divorced. They wanted to spare their daughter from watching what was predicted to be a painful two-year death.

But the furor around AIDS climbed to its peak in the mid-1990s, and antiretroviral drugs, eventually combined in "cocktails" and paired with a range of other pills to combat side effects, allowed Archuleta and others with HIV to keep it at bay.

And suddenly, AIDS faded from popular attention. It became seen as treatable, mostly afflicting those in developing countries.

But Archuleta notes that the disease is still a death sentence, and the medicines, while allowing him to survive, do make for a sort of prolonged agony.

A student in this morning's class asks Archuleta if he thinks AIDS will be cured.

"I don't think the urgency is there for a cure anymore," he answers.

Confusing messages

After the class, Archuleta seems satisfied that some members of the class understand that AIDS is still deadly.

The trouble, he says, is that schools in some districts simply do not want their students to hear that message, which invariably comes wrapped with the suggestion that condoms, used properly, can add a measure of safety for those who insist on having sex.

Archuleta expresses amazement that many who argue for abstinence-only sex education believe discussion about condoms and their correct use somehow encourages promiscuity.

"No one who ever hears this talk would say I'm telling kids to have sex," he says.

He knows some claim that the virus itself is small enough to pass through even undamaged condoms.

Not only is this simply false, he says, but it might actually encourage unsafe behavior by allowing some teens to reason that condoms are not worth the trouble.

Archuleta and S-CAP staff members are cautious about naming the schools and districts where there seems to be a reluctance to talk about AIDS and condoms.

Sarah Linster, an S-CAP HIV prevention specialist, says she was invited for the first time last fall to attend a health fair at a high school in northern El Paso County. She usually brings condoms and fliers describing proper use to such events; this time, she was told it would be best to stick with just the fliers. And even those apparently caught the eye of a teacher. School administrators sent her a message to put them away, Linster says.

"It was really kind of eye-opening," she says.

Such squeamishness might seem surprising for anyone who grew up in the '80s or '90s and faced a teacher wielding a raw vegetable and a condom.

Archuleta is hopeful about one recent development: A new law in Colorado will require districts offering sex education to teach about contraceptives as well as abstinence.

"You've got to understand," he says, "that kids are having sex." The Southern Colorado AIDS Project will have an open house Dec. 1 at 1301 S. Eighth St., #200, to observe World AIDS Day. No appointments are needed for free, confidential HIV tests, which will be offered from 9 a.m. to noon.

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