Nov. 21, 2002 – Organizers of this year's World AIDS Day observance locally say community awareness of the deadly disease is growing but there's a lot of work still to be done to curb the spread of AIDS and the HIV virus. Because the annual Dec. 1 commemoration falls on a Sunday this year, activists are turning to the faith communities to spread the word.
The St. Thomas/St. John 2002 World AIDS Day Committee is asking houses of worship on both islands to ring their bells 20 times at 6:30 p.m. that Sunday in remembrance of the first case of AIDS diagnosed in the Virgin Islands, in 1982.
"This bell ringing will close a day of encouraging the faith community to respond … to people suffering from HIV and AIDS," said Pat Odoms, co-chair of the AIDS day event. The tolling of bells is expected to come at the close of a 5 p.m. ecumenical service at Memorial Moravian Church in Charlotte Amalie.
Moravian, Catholic, Pentecostal, Jewish and Muslim representitives have already said they will take part in the service, which will end with the lighting of candles "in remembrance of those who have died, those still living with the diseases, and their family and friends." Odoms said she is hoping for the kind of public turnout seen last year, when hundreds of people dropped by during a day-long commemoration at Emancipation Garden. (See "AIDS Day: Education is what it's all about".)
Odoms sees participation by religious groups as an encouraging sign that reflects changing attitudes. Not long ago, she said, some local clergy declared AIDS and HIV a judgment from God. But this year, those clerics who join in the World AIDS Day observance will receive a copy of a book the organizers hope will help them turn their faith into compassion. "A Christian Response to AIDS" is a book describing the disease, the way its spread and what believers can do to relieve the suffering.
Since 1983, the Virgin Islands has recorded 512 cases of AIDS, with six of them reported between April and June of this year. In the same two decades, 228 cases of HIV infection have been recorded. But Odoms says the actual numbers of persons affected may be much higher.
When some people are diagnosed with HIV or AIDS locally, she said, they leave the Virgin Islands to get treatment in the States and wind up as part of some other area's statistics. But in the end stages of their disease, many come home to die, she added, and their cases are counted back in with those who don't have the option to leave.
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