Few U-area HIV/AIDS cases surprise some experts

Hayley Odom

University senior Ryan Sunderman thinks about HIV/AIDS every day – not because he has it, but because he is one of the peer educators students turn to when receiving their HIV test results.

Of the more than 250 people tested by Boynton Health Service for HIV during the past three years, one tested positive. It was the second positive HIV test at the University since Boynton began the tests 13 years ago.

Three years ago, Sunderman bared the burden of telling a patient about their positive result.

“I had only been working (at Boynton) for four months and it was incredibly nerve-wracking because you don’t know how this person will take the news,” Sunderman said.

A mental health worker was also present to provide additional support. Sunderman never thought he would be in a situation where he would inform someone they were infected. He said dealing with the emotional strain was difficult.

Sunderman said he was sad and upset, but remained strong during the appointment to give the patient support and answer questions.

Although an HIV positive case is rare at Boynton, it does not mean the University community is immune to this virus.

“It’s shocking that there’s only been two cases (in the last 13 years) and it makes me wonder if the right people are coming in to be tested or are people around here just lucky?” Sunderman said.

Metro area organizations are asking the same questions when looking at regional HIV/AIDS statistics.

None of the 1,400 University students who responded to a 2001 Boynton survey reported having HIV/AIDS.

As of Dec. 31, 2002, the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed there were no documented HIV/AIDS cases among people ages 18 to 24 living within the 55414 ZIP code, which encompasses part of the University community.

However, Hennepin County has the highest percentage of people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in Minnesota, and Ramsey and Dakota counties tie for a close second, according to the latest Minnesota Department of Health HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report.

Of the 4,598 people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in Minnesota, 47 percent reside in Minneapolis, 15 percent in St. Paul, 26 percent in the suburbs and 12 percent in greater Minnesota.

“All it takes is a few introductions of the virus to a populace for it to easily become a problem,” said Tracy Sides, an HIV/AIDS epidemiologist for the health department. “The numbers aren’t compelling (for the college-aged group) in terms of the burden of the disease. However, the risk behaviors are there.”

She also said a possible reason numbers are low in the college-aged community close to the University is because students with HIV/AIDS might reside elsewhere or do not know they are infected.

It can take more than 10 years for a person living with HIV to develop AIDS, which is one reason known cases are more pronounced among those above age 25, the surveillance report said.

PrideAlive, a Minnesota Aids Project program that focuses on the gay and bisexual community, travels to bars to provide free HIV testing. This month they are at The Saloon in downtown Minneapolis on Thursday nights.

Chad Johnson, a former University student, was tested for HIV for the first time about a week ago while at the bar. The testing area is located in two rooms at the Hotel Amsterdam, located above the bar.

“The University should be more involved in things like this to get out into the community instead of just providing services on campus,” Johnson said.

Joe Dobbert, a health education coordinator for the Minnesota AIDS Project, agreed and said his organization does not get a lot of response from the University when coordinating projects such as this one.

“It blows my mind that we can’t get more University students engaged in these programs,” he said.

However, besides HIV testing and counseling, Boynton does educate students through Sexual Health Awareness and Disease Education, a student group devoted to sexual health awareness and events such as this week’s Safer Sex Week.