By Martin J. Kidston
An international student attending Montana State University-Northern took the stage Wednesday afternoon to educate listeners on the reality of AIDS.
Byron Sirchia from the Republic of South Africa spoke at MSU-Northern about AIDS, telling listeners how the deadly virus has impacted his home country where, he said, very few people actually receive medical treatment.
"He said that when they get sick enough, they are told to go home and die," said Sue Swan, Student Health Director at MSU-Northern. "He talked about working in a manufacturing plant before he came to Havre, and how 30 to 40 percent of the workers there were infected. He also talked about the orphan problem."
According to the World Health Organization, lower Africa harbors nearly 95 percent of the world's 6.2 million children who have been orphaned by aids. And though the numbers in the United States are dramatically lower, AIDS is no stranger, and has even appeared in Havre.
"We lost a woman and her child in Havre a few years ago who contracted AIDS from her husband," Swan said. "People need to know that everyone is vulnerable, and they need to make responsible decisions regarding their behavior."
Swan, who has been an AIDS counselor for nine years, said the Havre community has seen five full-blown cases of the disease, while the numbers of those who are HIV positive remains unknown.
"HIV isn't a reportable disease, not like rabies and chicken pox," Swan said. "AIDS is reportable, and we have it in our community, and we've lost people who have lived and worked here because of it. It dispels the myth that AIDS is a disease that strikes only gay men and intravenous drug users."
In an effort to abolish that myth, the Hi-Line AIDS Task Force has begun to educate young students on the dangers of AIDS and unsafe sex, though the effort hasn't been without resistance. The task force recently gained permission to distribute information in Havre Middle School.
"This is the first time we've been into Havre Middle School to do AIDS education in five years," Swan said. "Saint Jude's does a session on sexual health in the eighth grade, and Havre High School has it's own sex education program."
At MSU-Northern, getting the message out is a little easier.
Swan said she offers safe-sex presentations in the residence halls, and health counseling in her office on a one-to-one basis.
"We give out free condoms at the college, but we also teach that abstinence is the number one way to avoid any form of sexually transmitted disease," Swan said. "The next best prevention is to choose a life-long partner, but if neither of those are choices, barrier protection is the second best choice."
And barrier protection is slowly catching on. During the World AIDS Day celebration at Northern, Swan said, the Student Health Department set out a basket with more than 100 condoms. By the end of the day, Swan said, they were all gone. What's more, condoms are regularly placed on bulletin boards, and they, too, get used.
"Not everyone is going to make the choice of abstinence," Swan said.
And while AIDS is present in the Havre community, another STD, chlamydia, remains prevalent in Havre.
"We've treated six people for chlamydia on campus this year," Swan said, adding that once someone tests positive for any STD, partner notification becomes paramount. "I had a student who indicated he had three different partners in the last three months. We had to find those partners and tell them, because most of the time, chlamydia doesn't have any symptoms."
Swan also said that not everyone comes to her to be tested.
"Some of the kids getting chlamydia are 14-year-olds," Swan said.