San Jose: World AIDS Day is a time of remembrance, hope
A candlelight vigil concluded World AIDS Day events at City Hall Tuesday. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Dennis Pitt-Clute takes 31 pills a day to combat his AIDS diagnosis, but when the 70-year-old works at PACE Clinic, a primary care facility dedicated to serving those who HIV, he’s more concerned about whether clients take their medications and make their appointments.

“Some people really have difficulty getting to PACE, and I don’t understand it,” he said. “It angers me when I see people putting themselves at risk, it just really isn’t worth it.”

He shared his story as part of Tuesday’s World AIDS Day events at San Jose City Hall. Organized in part by the Santa Clara County Getting to Zero initiative, Public Health Department, HIV Commission and nonprofit Project More, the day featured a viewing of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, a red ribbon flag raising and candlelight vigil. Many spent time reflecting on the history of HIV, but also its presence in the community now.

“It’s a lot easier now that medicine is much better,” said Pitt-Clute, who said medication doesn’t work as well for him because his body has been compromised by years of different treatments and pills. “I am very grateful for all the people who put their time and effort into developing the drugs and the work into keeping us able to fight.”

In Santa Clara County, there are 3,419 people known to be living with HIV/AIDS, and 70 percent had a suppressed or undetectable viral load. In 2018, there were 167 new HIV cases and 17 lives lost. For many, treatment is now down to one pill a day. Working to reduce that number even more, lawmakers – including Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilmembers Raul Peralez and Pam Foley – echoed concerns of ending stigma, access to care and even how the disease has touched their own families.

But speaking before the evening’s vigil, Kam Duque of San Jose embodied the importance of the continued work to finding a cure for HIV and AIDS.

“I know now that it wasn’t HIV that was going to stop me from having a long and healthy life,” Duque said, “but it was the stigma and fear that comes along with it.”

When he was diagnosed four years ago, the 37-year-old said he never expected to now be able to have a supportive HIV-negative partner, sit around the table with his family for Thanksgiving or speak at City Hall.

“To be honest, this was the first time being really out about it. It’s going to be 2020, and I was tired of hiding it,” he told San José Spotlight. “I felt like I wasn’t being myself. I’ve had all this support, so why not?”

The amount of medical support, resources and prevention now available to combat HIV have all dramatically increased since the epidemic first started in the 1980s. But Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who helped host a Celebration of Life and Light event Sunday, thinks events like World AIDS Day is a way to continue remembrance, education and hope.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re really keeping a light on the issue, so that we’re able to continue to educate people about how to protect themselves and their partners,” Chavez said. “One thing a lot of young people won’t remember is that for years and years we lost thousands of people. One could think, ‘Oh that epidemic’s over,’ but people are still contracting it, and people are living with it.”

Some people think the combination of a lack of education and wealth of misinformation – especially among younger generations – has hindered reducing new transmissions to zero.

Pharmaceutical company Merck, in partnership with the HIV initiative Prevention Access Campaign, released results of a survey, which reported 28 percent of HIV-negative millennials said they have avoided hugging, talking to or being friends with someone with HIV. It also showed 41 percent of HIV-negative Gen Z respondents were either not at all informed or only somewhat informed about HIV, a number which dropped to 23 percent for millennials.

In efforts to fight that growing problem, local organizations such as the Billy DeFrank Center, Santa Clara County Office of LGBTQ Affairs and Planned Parenthood offered resources Tuesday to anyone who visited the memorial AIDS quilt displayed inside City Hall’s rotunda.

Peralez said having a literal piece of AIDS history in the middle of downtown brought the issue to life.

“This makes it personal, it makes it real, because these are done by the family members, the friends and the loved ones of people who actually died due to HIV and AIDS,” Peralez said. “The quilt helps carry on their life, it helps to carry on their story.”

And that’s exactly why Allen Flagg, 67, volunteered to watch over the historic handmade tapestries for hours Tuesday. His brother, Stephen, died from the disease in 1993, just weeks shy of his 36th birthday. Flagg said the significance of the quilt – which, in its entirety, stands as a 54-ton memorial to more than 96,000 individuals lost to AIDS – is an impressive legacy.

“You know I don’t want to forget him. It’s just my way of keeping him in my memory,” Flagg said.

Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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