SALT LAKE CITY — In its 25th year, the Utah AIDS Foundation is planning to honor local pioneers in HIV/AIDS care, but the celebration is overshadowed by a growing concern for the upcoming generation, which doesn't seem to understand the seriousness of the disease.
"We have a whole generation of people who have literally grown up in the age of AIDS, they've never known a world without HIV or AIDS, and so it feels less urgent or less scary than it did, perhaps, when the epidemic was new," Stan Penfold, director of the Utah AIDS Foundation said.
Penfold said the incidence of new infections is again on the rise, when in the recent past, it appeared to be stabilizing.
"One of the challenges we see today is also that no one is talking about it," he said. "It is sort of under the radar a bit … people are just not talking about it."
The foundation is now focused on creating programs to help educate the most at-risk populations, which include homosexual men and Hispanics, statistically. Penfold said, however, that parents of all children can have the most influence.
"There's no more effective communication than a parent having a candid conversation with their child about any kind of sexual activity or sexual infection risk," he said. "Parents are the best line of defense."
Mario Duran, 18, said that while his mother wasn't comfortable giving him advice because of his sexual orientation, she was approachable and open enough for him to feel comfortable talking to her.
"She was nervous about it, but it was an open conversation. I have a really close relationship with my mother," he said, adding that the reciprocity helps encourage healthy communication. Duran has been tested for HIV and said it is not a scary procedure like one might think, but rather just a mouth swab.
"People are becoming more and more receptive to the information," said Josh Newbury, who is one of the foundation's HIV prevention specialists. "We are doing everything we can to show people that we are an AIDS service organization that cares about them, is non-judgmental, very friendly, very accessible and is doing everything that it can to make its services free, but also available to them when they need it."
On Tuesday, the foundation plans to honor some of the people "who kind of went out on a limb to say it is important that we provide services to people living with HIV," said Penfold. The event is being held at 6 p.m., at the Hilton Salt Lake City Center hotel, located at 255 S. West Temple. The Utah Pioneers in HIV event is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Zions Bank.
Among those the foundation is recognizing are the Sisters of the Holy Cross of Utah, who were the first to admit and care for AIDS patients in their hospital in Salt Lake City; Dr. Kristen Ries, the first clinician to treat AIDS patients in Utah; Dr. James Mason, a former director of the CDC who gave the decision to allow AIDS patient Ryan White to attend school; and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who co-sponsored the Ryan White Care Act — the first federally funded program for HIV/AIDS.
"They did all that early in the epidemic when it was not always a popular thing to do," Penfold said. He hopes that recognizing the "pioneers in HIV/AIDS" will spur more conversation about what can be done to prevent increasing prevalence of the disease.
"I think it is important to challenge the ideas that we have about HIV and AIDS and the ideas we have of people living with HIV and AIDS," said Alex Moya, Hispanic outreach coordinator for the foundation. "I think that is the first step. After that, we need to question the silence surrounding sex and relationships, make more of an open dialogue."