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Scholars plead for assistance to end African AIDS epidemic

Despite sobering statistics, professions of hope filled Trinity Church in Copley Square Friday night as the parish observed World AIDS Day with its first Advent Hope for AIDS in Africa.

The three-hour program united speakers from Harvard University and the non-profit organization African AIDS Initiative International and featured music from the Trinity Church and Union Baptist Church choirs.

This year’s program came just after a United Nations’ report released in late November reported that 38 million people worldwide are currently infected with the disease, twice the amount the World Health Organization had projected in 1991.

According to the report, AIDS will become the leading disease-specific cause of death by the end of this month as an estimated 3 million people will have succumbed to the disease this year. The United Nations’ report also revealed more than half of the globe’s new HIV infections are in people ages 15 to 25.

Of the 38 million people infected with HIV/AIDS, 25 million live in Sub-Saharan Africa, a fact emphasized by all seven of the program’s speakers.

“Africa will not be destroyed. I know that if God’s people stand up and say, ‘We will not watch a continent be lost,’ it will not be lost,” said Jacqueline Maloney, head of the Sister’s Project at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University.

Maloney’s optimistic words detailed her views on the importance of spiritual faith in the battle against AIDS.

“What I wish for you is to know that those who have gone before us have not died in vain, and those coming are not wounded soldiers,” she said. “There will be a day when we will say there is a cure for AIDS.”

Ethiopian native and AAII President Elleni Gebreamlak West listed several obstacles of fighting AIDS in Africa including the enormous stigma surrounding the disease; lack of education regarding its transmission; lack of government funding to supply life-prolonging drugs; and a shortage of communication technology to disseminate information across the vast continent.

“I’m very concerned about what’s happening in Africa. I want to help and do whatever is necessary to curtail this dreaded disease,” said African AIDS Initiative International Vice President Seyoum Ayehunie, who along with West, organized the first international conference on AIDS in Ethiopia in 1999.

West also described the origins of the non-profit organization and the means by which it seeks to promote HIV/AIDS awareness in Africa. According to West, African AIDS Initiative International looks to provide care and education for Africans, particularly women and children.

“We have no social security,” West said. “Children [are] our social security.”

Harvard professor K. Anthony Appiah encouraged the crowd to join in volunteer efforts to help those infected with AIDS. He urged them not to feel overwhelmed by its magnitude.

“It isn’t a great monster that we can do nothing about. Since each of the people who suffers from AIDS is a singular person, each of them can be helped by another singular person,” he said.

Appiah cited the country of Uganda, which cut its infection rates from 31 to 14 percent from 1990 to 1998, as a symbol of hope for Africa.

Some speakers illustrated their discussions with personal anecdotes.

West recalled that she promised a dying AIDS patient in Ethiopia that she would find a home for her and her children. When she found one she returned only to discover the woman had died and her children had taken to the streets.

Dr. Laura Riley, director of OB/GYN Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, spoke of treating a college student and single mother with AIDS who was so ashamed of the disease she refused to tell her parents about it even as she lay dying.

Roughly 250 people packed Trinity Church to hear the program. Some had been personally touched by AIDS and some came to learn about the disease.

“It was important to take hours out of my day to think about this. It’s emotional for me,” said Naomi Moland, a Tufts University senior who spent all of last year working in Zimbabwe and Ghana. “It was a beautiful coming together of a lot of different perspectives.”

Moland said she enjoyed the presentation of Canon Edward Rodman from the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, who stressed the economic and political roles the United States has played in Africa’s AIDS crisis and the need for Americans to help by “getting our hands dirty.”

“He talked a lot about intelligent giving and I think there’s a lot of unintelligent, unresearched giving over there that leads to relationships of dependence,” said Moland.

The church took a special collection and sold tri-colored AIDS ribbons to profit African AIDS Initiative International.

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