As fate would have it, hundreds of middle- and high-schoolers lined up to enter the Capitol last week as HIV/AIDS advocates from around Illinois held a rally just a few steps away. Rally participants were calling for an end to HIV discrimination and curbing the epidemic, partly through removing barriers to testing and educating young people better about sex and sexually transmitted diseases.
“If you can be abstinent, great. If you can be abstinent while you’re a teenager, better,” Jim Pickett, advocacy director for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, which organized the rally, told the crowd of about 140.
“But we have to supply young people with all the tools they need so when they
choose to be sexually engaged they have everything they need to protect
themselves and their loved ones.”
Total HIV cases in Illinois rose 23 percent, from 1,745 in 2007 to 2,152 in 2008, according to the state public health department. African-Americans represent roughly half of all new infections.
“Gay black men are bearing too much of the brunt. Black women are bearing too much of the brunt,” Pickett says.
His group also points out that positive HIV diagnoses among Illinois youth increased 30 percent from 2000 to 2005, an increase advocates assert is attributable to Illinois’ abstinence-only education policy and a decades-old law requiring schools to be notified of students’ HIV-positive status.
“Kids with HIV need to be treated the same as anybody else. This reporting law is treating kids with HIV differently and so it’s discriminatory,” says John Peller, the AIDS Foundation’s Springfield lobbyist.
A bill that would repeal the school reporting rule recently cleared the House human-services committee. Advocates are supporting a half-dozen pieces of legislation this year aimed at stemming the spread of HIV and AIDS.
Once the infection rates are brought under control, the next step is to increase access to care for those already infected but who can’t get treatment because they’re either ineligible for Medicaid, can’t afford private insurance or are disqualified for other reasons.
“Health insurance money should go to people who need healthcare, not into the pockets of the heath company executives,” says state Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, who is openly gay and has AIDS. Harris is sponsor of a bill that would make it illegal for insurance companies in Illinois to discriminate against people with preexisting health conditions.