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World AIDS Day 2017

World AIDS Day, designated on  December 1st every year since 1988, is dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV infection, and mourning those who have died of the disease.

My first World AIDS Day event was in 1991, the year my best friend, Jon, was diagnosed with AIDS. At that time, there was no agency providing services to people with HIV in Nashua, just a support group that met weekly in the local hospital basement run by Public Health nurses who saw the epidemic spreading into our community. Relationships among People Living with HIV/AIDS  (PLWHA) and the affected community were significant,  this was a day-to-day, life and death battle, and we all felt like we were in it together.

In those early days, World AIDS Day events were very well attended. PLWHA and their loved ones, as well as dedicated community professionals, worked together to plan a meaningful commemoration for this one day of the year set aside “just for us”. For many years, the World AIDS Day commemoration took place at City Hall, with the Mayor of Nashua speaking about the disease and offering a proclamation. We had entertainment from local musicians and student groups, as well as thought-provoking films and slideshows.

As the years have gone by and the epidemic has changed so much, so have the World AIDS Day events. We don’t have many people attend anymore, and rarely have more than one or two clients and/or loved ones present. In Nashua, we still hold an open house with refreshments and meaningful activities to reflect on the disease and our losses as well as our progress. We also hold a candlelight vigil where all attendees are invited to read names of those we have lost from our community. For me, this is a moment I treasure each year, because as difficult as it is, it helps me reconnect for a brief moment with each of the lovely souls I have had the pleasure to know and care for over the past 26 years of my life.

HIV/AIDS, for many of our clients, is now just a small component of their lives, not the biggest, scariest, “when am I going to die?” part. This demonstrates the progress we have made in fighting this epidemic, and the change in how the world views HIV/AIDS. Isn’t it wonderful that HIV/AIDS is no longer a terminal disease, that stigma has been reduced (somewhat) and PLWHA can lead happy, healthy and productive lives? Unfortunately, for those of us who have lost loved ones to this disease, it never changes. I think of my best friend Jon daily. I know that his life, battle with AIDS, and his death shaped me and my life significantly. His legacy is my work at the Southern NH HIV/AIDS Task Force and World AIDS Day is my opportunity to publicly remember him and all he was to me.

Please consider attending the World AIDS Day event in your community. Each AIDS Service Organization is holding an open house and will be showing “Etched From Granite, Digital Stories of HIV in New Hampshire”. We would love to spend this special time with you as we remember all those we have lost to this disease and honor those still fighting.

Wendy LeBlanc

Vice President, Southern NH HIV/AIDS Task Force