Pasqua: AIDS is ‘everybody’s disease’

by Rachel Stengel

According to World AIDS Day speaker Elaine Pasqua, just one careless misstep could alter the course of your life permanently.

Elaine Pasqua

On Wednesday, Pasqua presented a program entitled, “Living and Loving in a World with AIDS.” Using her own life experiences and several exercises, she showed students at Rider University how prevalent AIDS can become if people do not take the proper precautions.

It is important for college students to be informed as half of all new HIV cases are within the 15 to 24 age group, Pasqua said.

Audience members were asked to participate in various activities that revealed the prevalence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. One exercise required participants to take a cup filled with water, which represented bodily fluid, and exchange with three other people. Two of the cups contained  sodium hydroxide to represent HIV. After the exchange, a drop of another chemical was added to each cup. The cups that turned pink contained the symbolic HIV. More than 75 percent of the participants contracted HIV.

A second exercise required participants to read off of a card about their fictional character’s sexual history. Colored dots on the front of the cards corresponded to the various individuals of the group their character had sexual relations with before the scenario was posed. The two main characters wanted to determine if the other was free of sexually transmitted diseases before they engaged in sex. The exercise examined real life scenarios in which people alter or fabricate their sexual history. Skewing the lines leads to the possibility of a sexually transmitted disease. Pasqua stressed the importance of using a condom with every sexual encounter.

World AIDS Day, which takes place every year on Dec. 1, is a global day first developed by the World Health Organization in 1988 to promote the awareness of HIV and AIDS.

Pasqua is a former faculty member of the New Jersey AIDS Education and Training Center and served as a member of the Pennsylvania HIV Prevention Community Planning Committee. She is also the president of Project Prevention, a nonprofit organization that aims to provide AIDS/HIV education to elementary and high school age students. Among her numerous distinguished awards, Pasqua was nominated in both 2009 and 2010 for the “Reader’s Choice Award for Best Speaker of the Year for Campus Activities.”

Red ribbons with an AIDS fact attached to them were handed out at the event so that students could support the cause.

After witnessing the heartbreak that accompanies AIDS firsthand, Pasqua vowed to promote discussion about AIDS prevention. In 1989, Pasqua’s mother and stepfather were diagnosed with AIDS. Her stepfather had already contracted Hepatitis-B from his previous wife. He participated in a clinical study in 1979 that aimed to cure Hepatitis-B carriers. One of the substances used in the test was human blood plasma from San Francisco, an HIV hotbed at the time. Pasqua’s stepfather unknowingly passed the virus on to her mother.

“When we don’t think it’s going to happen to us, it’s not on the radar and we’re not taking the precautions to prevent the infection,” Pasqua said.

HIV (Human Immuno­deficiency Virus) targets the T-cells, messenger cells of the immune system. The average human has a T-cell count from 800-1400, which may vary day to day. HIV converts the RNA of a T-cell into an HIV cell. This, in turn, can create one billion new HIV cellular particles a day. HIV can incubate in the body for 10 years. Many do not know they have the virus and their T-cell count continues to plummet. Once the amount of T-cells falls to 200, the person is classified as an AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) patient.

“It’s everybody’s disease,” Pasqua said. “It doesn’t know the difference between male and female, black or white, gay or straight.”

Pasqua was urged by her parents not to reveal their condition because they feared the ignorant backlash from close friends and family. Before 1996, HIV was a death sentence. Most patients died within two years of diagnosis. Protease Inhibitor drugs ceased the production of HIV cells within the body. These drugs dramatically altered the life of an HIV or AIDS patient. People began to live longer but still struggled with the disease.

Patients with HIV or AIDs suffer from a severely compromised immune system. Pasqua noted a 48-year-old AIDS patient who has an immune system equivalent to that of an 88-year-old.

Pasqua’s parents both lost their battle with AIDS. The taboo surrounding the disease did not aid in its prevention. Pasqua’s program aims to break down that stigma and promote informational discussion.

The program was interactive as well as educational. Pasqua outlined the four bodily fluids that transmit HIV: blood, semen, breast milk and vaginal secretions. She enumerated activities that can pass on the virus, many of which are not often mentioned. Unprotected sexual intercourse was the most common. Other ways of transmitting the disease include sharing needles used from drug transfusions, piercings and tattoos. Even sharing a toothbrush with someone can transmit HIV because of bleeding from small cuts in the gums.

Pasqua provided three protective sexual options: abstinence, masturbation and sex with a condom. The crux of her message was protection and prevention. Pasqua explained that, regardless of one’s personal beliefs, people should educate themselves and utilize protection.

“Take this information that I share with you today and share it with other friends, for you can make a difference and save a life,” she said.

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