Rising students from the depths of the library in the midst of exam season -- for any reason -- is no easy task. Save a good night or two of heavy drinking, university students are notoriously mysterious during December, buried as they are in their books as they attempt to catch up on three months' worth of procrastination. This stress makes the timing of World AIDS Day, which takes place annually on December 1, especially disastrous for organizers of campus-based HIV/AIDS outreach, awareness and fundraising events.
But a group of dedicated individuals and student groups at the University of British Columbia have put together a week-long series of activities designed to stir students from their book-induced slumber in order to talk about the continued effects of the virus and how the university and Vancouver community can add their voices and energy to it's eradication.
UBC World AIDS Day, or UBC WAD, began with a small group of student groups already involved with HIV/AIDS related issues coming together to help educate their fellow students on HIV prevention, as well as advocate and fundraise for populations most affected by the virus. Six years later the event has turned into an annual affair, with 11 student groups coordinating activities across campus during the first week of December. Groups ranging from Africa Awareness to the UBC Microbiology and Immunology Students Association to an Acapella group are aiming to make 2009 the most varied and lively UBC WAD to date, and hope to engage students beyond the those already aware and involved.
"This year especially, UBC WAD is really about reaching out to as many different populations on campus as possible," says Jo-Ann Osei-Twum, who chairs the group. "We don't want to preach to the choir about HIV/AIDS. We have some students and groups on campus who already know a lot about the virus, and it's our aim to reach out to those who may be less informed and involved.
"This really is about making HIV/AIDS as normal and accessible as possible," Osei-Twum continues. "Part of what makes HIV so stigmatized is that the general population, even 30 plus years later, still doesn't talk about it. We want to make it part of every day classroom and dorm room discussions, not something that's just reserved for those who study virology or are involved from an activism standpoint. If we're serious about eradicating the virus, and dealing with its effects head on, we need to make it normalized and acceptable to talk about. Through the activities of UBC WAD, we're hoping to do that on the campus level."
But despite UBC WAD activities taking place for the past six years, Osei-Twum says that it's still difficult to "get students to care. We're constantly faced with low student turn out." In addition to the busy student lifestyle, Osei-Twum attributes this to student apathy and what she terms "AIDS fatigue." "It's somewhat that people don't care, and somewhat that people feel like the problem is over, like it doesn't affect them and isn't as urgent anymore." Notwithstanding the continued grim local and global numbers--upwards of 35 million people are infected with the virus worldwide, with 2.7 becoming newly infected in 2008 alone--Osei-Twum, who has been involved with the group since 2005, has seen an increasingly less interested student population walk by forums and red ribbon booths year after year, barely offering a glance at information on prevention or advocacy.
"I think people are tired of hearing the same messages about HIV. They want something new and different," Osei-Twum. "Students have moved on to climate change, to the economic recession, to Afghanistan, whatever. And those are important causes. But it doesn't make AIDS any less important, or any less in need of our attention and efforts."
Since the virus' beginnings in the early 1980s, AIDS activists and public health experts have encountered difficulty engaging the general North American population with prevention and advocacy efforts. Stories of AIDS orphans in Africa or HIV positive gay men dying in droves in San Francisco and on Vancouver's Davie street moved a few to action, but also aided the mentality that AIDS was someone else's problem: a virus that affected the poor and the African and the homosexual, but not the Canadian population at-large. While HIV is far from a generalized epidemic within the country, the statistics point to a virus that certainly affects more than an unlucky few: in 2006, 28% of new infections were among heterosexual women, a group originally thought to be largely untouched by HIV. Additionally, UBC WAD organizers argue, regardless of how many Canadians are living with the virus, HIV is a global problem and therefore requires a continuous global solution. Just as climate change won't be solved with a few years' campaigning, Canadian funding, science and advocacy is perpetually needed until -- and to help ensure that -- the virus is truly eradicated.
"We're trying to say two things," explains Osei-Twum. "First, that HIV can happen to anyone, regardless of where you live or your sexual orientation or your background. Secondly, that even if you're not infected with the virus, HIV affects you. Part of being a Canadian is being a global citizen, and part of being a global citizen is recognizing the devastating affects of HIV.
"People are able to rally around swine flu prevention efforts because it seems scary and immediate, but in reality we have a much larger epidemic on our hands, and we still can't get many Canadians to wear a red ribbon or donate a few dollars," she says.
In an attempt to involve a greater proportion of the student population, the group's coordinating committee has organized original and inventive events to make UBC WAD 2009 more visible than it has been in years past. Throughout the week, two films will be shown in order to educate students on the virus and it's effects worldwide; students will be involved in letter-writing to their Members of Parliament about revisions to the Canadian Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR), which impacts the price and availability of antiretroviral medications worldwide; and red scarves and ribbons will be sold to raise money for several local and international HIV/AIDS organizations. UBC Medicine, in partnership with the Acapella group the Auscultations and the UBC medicine choir, will also lead the university's first "flash mob," with students singing John Lennon's "Imagine" while marching to the central Student Union Building. A full list of events can be found below.
"World AIDS Day is obviously in many ways a serious thing, but that doesn't mean we can't have fun while learning more about the virus and celebrating the lives of those lost and the work that's come before us," says Osei-Twum. "This doesn't have to be a dark, somber thing, but a week of celebration of our global efforts and a time to re-charge for the fight to come."
UBC World AIDS Day events
Tuesday, December 1st, 2009
AIDS March/"Flash Mob" of John Lennon's "Imagine"
Life Sciences Centre to Student Union Building
"HIV, AIDS, CAMR, UAEM: Capital Letters, Capital Issues"
Life Sciences Centre Lecture Hall 3
HIV Documentary Screening: "For Mimi, Seid, and Amelezewd," featuring commentary by Spencer Freeman
Life Sciences Centre Lecture Hall 3
Guest Speaker - Dr. Mel Krajden, British Columbia Centre for Disease Control
"Impact of HIV on Vancouver communities"
Life Sciences Centre Lecture Hall 3
Film night - "A Closer Walk"
Performance by UBC Acapella Group
UBC Walter Gage Residence: Fire Side Lounge
Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009
Coffee house at the Global Lounge
Marine Drive Residence Building #1
Thursday, December 3rd, 2009
Mara Kardas-Nelson is a rabble.ca intern and editor of Campus Notes.
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