AIDS Walk Fights Illness and Stigmas

By JASON SONG from the Los Angeles Times


Robin Keeble stood out against a sea of white. Instead of the largely colorless T-shirts handed out Sunday to most of the walkers in the 15th annual AIDS Walk Orange County, the 45-year-old Anaheim resident wore a red shirt to denote her HIV-positive status.

Keeble said she has learned to live comfortably with the disease. But she also sometimes is "mistrustful of people."  "I have my own shame and fear," Keeble said as she relaxed near the walk's finish line, her shirt sticking to her sweaty back. "But at an event like this, when people come together, it gives you hope and you stand up."

For the first time, walk organizers made red T-shirts available to HIV-positive walkers to lift their spirits and serve as a visible reminder that HIV/AIDS remains a serious public health issue.

"There's still a lot of prejudice," said Risa Groux, chairwoman for the event at UC Irvine. "We want people to realize that there are a lot of HIV-positive people out there who can stand up and be proud."

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. There are 700,000 to 900,000 HIV-positive Americans, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Event organizers estimate more than 15,000 participants raised nearly $820,000 for AIDS prevention and support services by gathering pledges and walking a 5K or 10K route around the campus.

Event organizers said they could still reach their goal of $1 million if enough corporate donations trickle in over the next month. Even if the walk falls short of its $1-million goal, organizers are confident that they will break their record of $885,000, set in 2000.

While event organizers were unsure how many red T-shirts were given out, those garments dotted UCI lawns as walkers flopped onto the grass to rest and eat.

Not everyone was aware of the T-shirts' deeper meaning.

"I'm HIV-positive, really?" Shelby Brown, who is not HIV-positive, said with a surprised laugh. The 40-year-old Anaheim Hills resident shrugged off the misunderstanding, saying she understands the stigmas attached to HIV.

When her father, Joseph Brown Jr., was diagnosed with HIV on Christmas Day, 1990, "everyone thought it was a gay or druggie disease," she said.

"He was happily married with kids; he lived a clean life, but some people just didn't understand you could get it other ways," Brown said. Doctors later found that Joseph had contracted the virus through a blood transfusion.

Brown said the family was able to insulate her father from public prejudice until his death in 1994. But she has seen others suffer. "Sometimes their own family members wouldn't touch them or feed them. It was like they'd been disowned," Brown said, her voice trailing off.

Brown raised nearly $1,000 from family members and co-workers this year.

"My father always said he wouldn't wish this disease on his worst enemy," she said. "I want to make sure people know [AIDS] still exists."

Event coordinators estimate nearly 5,700 Orange County residents have contracted AIDS, yet they fear that many people are still not taking steps to avoid exposure to HIV. Nationwide, the number of reported cases is on the upswing among gay and bisexual men and African Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"There's a notion that we've somehow turned the corner," Groux said. "That's not true." Keeble also shared Groux's fear. Not only is the disease still prevalent, but public attitudes toward those infected have barely changed, she said.

"We still carry a stigma," Keeble said over the cheers of walkers crossing the finish line. "But I'm not ashamed to stand and be proud of my life today."