Saturday, September 14

AIDS education must be accessible to all

AIDS education must be accessible to all

By Willy Singh

It was 3 a.m. on a Saturday night in Long Beach. A call came
into our station for shortness of breath. Long Beach fire engine
five (a paramedic engine) was also en route.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m describing the events of
a call I responded to a few weeks ago as an emergency medical
technician for a Long Beach ambulance company.

To continue with the incident: The patient’s home was a private
residence in an economically deprived part of the city. The
patient, a female in her late 30s, said she’d been having
difficulty breathing for the past few months but never to the point
that she needed help, or so she said. We put her on high-flow
oxygen and provided the rest of the care as well.

But it is not my intent to describe her treatment. Rather, I
want to focus on something I discovered.

Upon further questioning, we discovered that the patient’s
occupation and mode of livelihood was prostitution. Our next
obvious question, then, was to ask if she had AIDS. Now, it’s not
up to us as health care workers to inquire about a person’s HIV
status, but for those of you questioning the legality of the
matter, we asked if she had AIDS considering her occupation.

Now then, keep in mind this was 3 a.m. My eyes still had some
sleep in them, but I could not believe what she said next. "What’re
you talkin’ about. A … what???" So I repeated the question and to
my honest surprise, she didn’t know what AIDS was!

Believe me, I was taken aback. How in the world could this
person who has sex for a living not know about a virus that has
infected the world at an enormous rate? Then I asked her if she had
any of the other sexually transmitted diseases and guess what?
She’d never heard of most of them! I felt like saying, where do you
live, on Mars?

By the way, the patient’s breathing was coming a little easier
by that point. But as surprised as I was, I thought about the fact
that she didn’t know anything about AIDS and still has sex with all
of those people who may or may not be HIV positive or who have

I thought about the fact that if she did in fact have AIDS, then
all the people she’d had sex with were potentially infected. If
that’s not scary I don’t know what is. But I don’t want to sound
like I am putting the entire blame on her. People who have
unprotected sex with prostitutes are equally culprits.

I took Biology 40, the biology of AIDS, with Dr. Roger Bohman.
This class, which focuses on the social, economic and biological
impacts of this dreaded epidemic on the world’s population, posed
very interesting and important questions about the epidemic that we
as a society must confront. To make it short, it was an excellent
class. Here I was, faced with this patient. Having taken Bio 40, it
really hit home.

I never found out if the patient actually had AIDS or was HIV
positive, but if I had to bet on it, I would say it was very likely
she was infected with the virus (I realize I am judging, but she
was a prostitute!).

I know a lot of people still don’t know much about HIV, but this
was the first time I’ve ever encountered a person who had never
heard of the virus. The big question in my mind is, what does this
mean? I don’t want to make this viewpoint sound like a paper for a
class, but I think it is important to stress public education about
the AIDS epidemic.

And I don’t mean just holding official seminars with a bunch of
experts in the field who get together to discuss their agendas.
Holding big charity events for AIDS research help, sure, but at the
same level making the general public aware of the dreaded epidemic
is crucial.

Most of the inner city folks don’t have the money or the
resources to attend classes on AIDS education; their main concern
is surviving from one day to the next. How do I know? I’ve been
working on those streets for the past few years and from what I’ve
seen, a lot needs to be changed.

What it comes down to is this: Hard-core research doesn’t mean
shit to a person like the patient I encountered on the call,
because, most likely, their first concern is putting food on the
table by one means or another. So to solve this problem, we must
get down to the level of general public (i.e., AIDS educators:
forget that you’re a Ph.D. or M.D. or whatever) and tell your
patients in the most basic terms about the causes, modes of
transmission and most of all, the consequences of AIDS. This holds
true for health education in general, not just for AIDS.

Singh is a senior biology student.

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