Activists reflect on AIDS’ 30th anniversary

By Gus Bode

Steven St. Julian was living in San Francisco in 1981 when the news about HIV broke.

“I was living in Oz; it was the Emerald City,”  said St. Julian, Jackson County Health Center HIV-prevention coordinator. “(San Francisco) has been booked as this wonderful, beautiful fabulous place to be, and it was that for me for about two years until HIV came along.”

St. Julian said he watched as the disease moved closer to he and his loved ones, affecting his co-workers and neighbors.

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“My roommates became sick and started dying,” he said. “And then finally I found out I was positive and then from that moment on I wondered when it was going to be my turn. I left that city in ’92 after I’d buried all my friends and I’ve never been back. What should have been a very beautiful time is very ugly to me.”

Deanna Ellis, a senior studying healthcare management from Chicago, serves hot chocolate Thursday after the AIDS walk at the Student Health Center. The walk began at 6 p.m. at the Student Health Center and was followed by refreshments. Other events commemorating World Aids Day included free HIV testing by the Jackson County Health Department, and guest speaker Jack Mackenroth, an HIV activist. Sarah Gardner | Daily Egyptian

This year marks the 30-year anniversary of the discovery of HIV/AIDS.

According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 60 million people have been infected with HIV since 1981. Currently, more than 30 million people across the globe test positive for HIV/AIDS, with two million cases in the United States. In Illinois, 100,000 people live with HIV/AIDS.

According to the CDC, for every infected person recorded with the disease, there are an estimated five to 10 others who remain unaware of being infected.

St. Julian said he spends his life educating people on these statistics. St. Julian has worked as a representative for those living with HIV in southern Illinois, has served terms on the State Planning Council, the HIV Prevention Council and now works in prevention and adherence for local residents living with HIV. He said he hopes his personal experience can inform people about the realities of HIV.

St. Julian said HIV attacks a person’s T-cells, which make up the human immune system. One is diagnosed with AIDS when the cell count drops below 200. A healthy person has about 800 T-cells.

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“I was down to 12 T cells. I was at death’s door,” St. Julian said. “It was 1995. I weighed 117 pounds, I’d given away everything I owned, found homes for my dogs because it looked like I was dying and I’d seen that too much.”

The same year, unbeknownst to him, Dr. David Hoe was making major medical discoveries in the fight against AIDS.

Within a few months, the FDA approved Hoe’s medication, putting it to a clinical trial. St. Julian said his doctors approached him about being a patient in a clinical study. After a few months, he said his T-cells grew to 325, and he said he remains in a healthy range.

At the same time, on the other side of the San Francisco, Jack Mackenroth was studying at University of California – Berkeley. Mackenroth is an Olympic swimmer, model and fashion designer, was featured on “Project Runway” and is an HIV activist.

Mackenroth was 20 when he was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1989. He said he could still vividly recall the fear of AIDS in its early stages.

“I remember the city’s gay newspaper, The Bay Area Reporter, just had pages and pages and pages of obituaries every single day,” Mackenroth said. “You would go through Castro, which is the main street in the gay area of the city, and you could just see people who were just walking skeletons.”

Mackenroth said at the time there were no treatment options, and he said he thought he’d be dead in five years. But he said he made an active approach to his health.

“I started seeing a therapist, went to support groups and regularly saw my doctor,” Mackenroth said.

“A lot of people were in denial about having it, but I was the complete opposite. As the medications keep getting better, I keep doing better and kept living. I got to be 25, I got to be 30, I got to be 35 and then I just stay 35 for the next seven years,” he said with a laugh.

Mackenroth said being in the public eye has forced him to be more vocal about his status than in previous years.

“I’m the poster boy for HIV,” Mackenroth said. “But the benefits completely outweigh the responsibilities. I’ve gotten written letters from people who said they were going to kill themselves until they read something about me. Who can say they have that effect on someone’s life so literally?”

Both Mackenroth and St. Julian said despite their history with AIDS, young people no longer view the disease as an epidemic.

St. Julian said the only way to attack the problem is to get tested at least twice a year. The Student Health Center, Longbranch Coffeehouse and the Jackson County Health Center regularly hold free and confidential HIV testing.

“It just needs to be normalized,” Mackenroth said. “It’s parallel to any civil rights movements in terms of racism, homophobia — the more it’s talked about and the more you know about HIV, the more the myth and cloud of mystery dissipates.”

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