How did people in the Tri-Town area, particularly Mattapoisett, experience the AIDS crisis? To examine this question, I looked through the digital archives of Presto Press and The Wanderer, two local publications, to find all mentions of HIV and AIDS (not including mentions of HIV/AIDS in the context of movie or theatrical reviews, or mentions of feline immunodeficiency virus). Presto Press was a local publication which was active from 1954 to 1992. The Wanderer is a weekly newspaper based in Mattapoisett which has been active since 1992. With the overlap between the publication dates of the two newspapers, it is possible to get a picture of AIDS-related events and activities in the Tri-Town. In Presto Press, I studied the records from 1986 to 1992 and in The Wanderer, I studied the records from 1992 to 2008. In all, I found 105 mentions of HIV/AIDS in the two publications from 1986 to 2008. I attempted to categorize some of the different types of events and activities relating to AIDS as reported in Presto Press and The Wanderer. In total, both publications promoted five workshops for healthcare workers, nine workshops or activities for students, four workshops for parents, one event for school faculty and staff, eleven general workshops for residents (including televised programs), four notices from libraries about material related to AIDS (including one notice from St. Anthony’s Parish), two benefit concerts, and five non-concert fundraising events.
Before looking into the events and activities covered in Presto Press and The Wanderer, I would like to give a brief history of HIV/AIDS treatment in the United States. In June 1981, the first cases in the United States of what was later identified as AIDS were reported. HIV-related deaths in the U.S. steadily increased through the 1980s and peaked in 1995. In 1987, the FDA approved the use of azidothymidine (AZT), which was the first antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS. AZT could slow the progression of the disease in a patient, but had severe side effects and could add only months to a patient’s life expectancy. In 1995, Merck and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases began a clinical trial of a three-drug combination of antiretroviral therapy, which proved successful. Despite its effectiveness, ART was expensive at $10,000 to $15,000 a year per patient. Poor funding and political opposition prevented many countries from expanding access to ART. In 2000, the Accelerating Access Initiative of the World Health Organization dramatically lowered the price of ART for thirty-nine countries. The effectiveness of ART improved markedly. Single-tablet medication, such as Atripla in 2006, replaced multiple daily doses. The side effects of ART decreased greatly, improving the quality of life for people with HIV as well as their life expectancy.
These improvements in the treatment of the virus appear to be reflected in the amount of local coverage. Coverage of HIV/AIDS-related events and activities peaked in 1992 with fourteen articles. In 1995 (the year that AIDS-related deaths peaked in the US), there were nine articles. After 1995, coverage dropped to an average of two articles a year. In 2006, coverage of HIV/AIDS-related events rose again slightly as the focus shifted from the United States to Africa. Going against the observation that coverage loosely matched the AIDS-related mortality rate in the US, in 1990 and 1991, the amount of articles dropped to four and five a year, respectively. As yet, I do not know why this decrease in coverage occurred.
A common theme in the quotes I found was that of clearing up misinformation and the overall mystery surrounding the virus. One quote from April 13, 1988 promoting an AIDS Awareness Forum led by an infection control nurse states: “This 20th century health threat is a mystery to the great majority of the population and surrounded by inaccurate information. The forum offers area residents the opportunity to get the facts on AIDS and have their questions answered.” New Bedford Child and Family Services held a series of workshops in May and June 1988, and the statement promoting these workshops evoked similar feelings of confusion on the part of laypeople:
The meeting will focus on bringing all the medical jargon and statistics about AIDS down to an understandable level. Every day we hear more and more terrifying information about AIDS. The NBCFS meetings, targeted at all ages and educational groups, will dig into what it all really means. Questions that affect everyone will be answered in plain, jargon-free terms: How can you get AIDS? How can you avoid it? How does AIDS affect your kids? Exactly what should you believe about AIDS?
One anecdote particularly indicates the level of confusion and mystery surrounding HIV/AIDS. In June 1987, Dan Daly, the Director of Community Information for Plymouth County Mosquito Control, spoke at a Mattapoisett Selectmen’s meeting. Reporting on this meeting, Virginia Arral wrote: “In reply to a question from Selectman Frank Suzan, Mr. Daly explained ‘there is no evidence we’ve seen or heard about that the AIDS virus is transmitted by mosquitoes.’” This exchange highlights the need for coherent HIV/AIDS education in order to allay people’s fears.
There were several educational programs about AIDS held at Old Rochester Regional High School. On one occasion, as part of an AIDS Awareness program on March 15, 1989, students were able to meet with a “PWA (person with AIDS) speaker.” As coverage in the Presto Press states, “The program is designed not only to give students information about the disease and how to prevent it, but also to explore the human costs of the tragedy of AIDS and the students’ own risks, by having them meet a person with AIDS face-to-face.” Presto Press quoted Randy Yates, the program’s coordinator, as saying: “Health education is difficult with healthy, young people who don't see their own risk to disease. This program seeks to introduce students to a person with AIDS to help them understand that they are, indeed, vulnerable should they engage in various unprotected behaviors.” Kevin Evanston, AIDS educator for the Department of Education said, “The PWA Speakers Program is a valuable educational tool. Somehow this disease isn't real to students until they see it. Meeting someone who [may be] very much like themselves who has AIDS helps them to see their own risk.” This event centered the students, focusing on their risk of contracting the virus while using the speaker as a way to make this danger tangible.
Several events were held in Mattapoisett and the surrounding area to commemorate World AIDS Day. World AIDS Day was created by James Bunn and Thomas Netter and first celebrated on December 1, 1988. On the first World AIDS Day, the New Bedford AIDS Advocacy Center sponsored an Open House at which Mayor John K. Bullard spoke. On World AIDS Day in 1989, the New Bedford AIDS Advocacy Center held another Open House. Mayor Bullar presented a proclamation “from the City of New Bedford demonstrating their commitment and support for AIDS education.” On World AIDS Day in 1992, Old Rochester Regional Junior High School held a minute of silence and students and faculty wore red ribbons in memory of those who had died from AIDS-related illnesses.
On December 5, 2002, in honor of the fiftieth World AIDS Day, the community was invited to a display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt at Old Rochester Regional High School. On December 6, Dr. Francis Fayne Jr., a local high school teacher whose two sons contracted AIDS through blood transfusions, gave a presentation on AIDS to students at Old Rochester Regional High School. The article in The Wanderer about this event stated, “The AIDS Memorial quilt is a poignant memorial, a powerful tool for prevention education and the largest ongoing community arts project in the world. Each of the more than 44,000 colorful panels in the quilt memorializes the life of a person lost to AIDS. As the epidemic claims more lives, the quilt continues to grow and to reach more communities with its messages of remembrance, awareness and hope.” The Wanderer also wrote, “HIV/AIDS has shown itself capable of triggering responses of compassion, solidarity and support, bringing out the best in people, their families and communities. But the disease is also associated with stigma, repression and discrimination, as individuals affected (or believed to be affected) by HIV have been rejected by their families, their loved ones and their communities.”
For World AIDS Day in December 2006, Old Rochester Regional High School held a week of awareness activities leading up to a World AIDS Day presentation. The Wanderer described junior Beth Beatriz as feeling that “although AIDS is a growing problem, it is not getting the attention it deserves.” Beatriz said, “If our generation does not stop AIDS, no one ever will.”
There was a significant effort on behalf of the Friends of the Elderly in Mattapoisett to knit items for babies and young children with HIV/AIDS. On November 20, 1991, Presto Press published the following:
On November 13th the Seniors were visited by Connie Perry. Connie came to the Village Court to talk about ‘Babies with AIDS.’ There is a great need for quilts, afghans, caps and booties. Connie suggested that if any of the seniors would like to participate it would be greatly appreciated. Many of the seniors were more than glad to help. If there is anyone else who would like to help in this project (young and old) please feel free to come to the Village Court on activity Day. This is a world-wide problem and our hearts and prayers go out to these babies. The Friends of the Elderly would like to thank Connie Perry for coming to talk to us and making us more aware of a very sad problem.
An article from January 22, 1992 restated the Friends of the Elderly’s commitment to “making quilts, afghans, bonnets and booties for these sick babies.” The statement urged interested people to “call Ginnie” for directions, referring to Virginia Lubker, president of the Friends. In April 23, 1993, The Wanderer said that “the response [to this initiative] has been so great that Ginny Lubker has just about run out of yarn.” In February 1994, The Wanderer reported that the Friends had been working with the Children’s AIDS Program in Boston and had been “instrumental in finding people who will knit hats and booties” for babies and young children with HIV/AIDS. Around March 1994, the Friends shifted to knitting hats for three to six year olds with HIV/AIDS after the group had made over 200 hats for babies. As of June 1994, Lubker had sent out over sixty hats for the three to six year olds, and by February 1995, Lubker had mailed out over 600 items total to the Children’s AIDS Program. The last mention I found about the Friends’s efforts to knit items for babies and children was from February 24, 1995. A few months later, ORR Junior High students in the Survivor program made quilts and blankets for local babies with HIV/AIDS. The Wanderer reported:
This project has special meaning for student Elaine Chytrus, whose mother takes in foster children, and has a one-year old HIV-positive little boy. She will be making a special quilt for him. She has also been instrumental in putting together this whole program. She feels this program is important because “a lot of HIV babies don't have enough people to care for them. They can tell when someone is doing something nice for them because they have such a happy look on their face!”
Around 2006, mentions of HIV/AIDS in The Wanderer shifted from focusing on the virus in the local community to its impact in Africa. Of the ten mentions of HIV/AIDS from 2006 to 2008, seven were about AIDS in Africa. A few local students participated in HIV/AIDS education efforts in Africa: specifically Ben Kneppers in Zambia and Sarah DeMatos in Swaziland. There were also a number of local fundraising events to support HIV/AIDS advocacy in Africa.
By looking through the archives of Presto Press and The Wanderer, we can see a picture of the local community’s efforts to understand the virus and engage in educational and advocacy efforts. Although enormous progress has been made in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, stigma and prejudice towards HIV-positive people persists, as well as misinformation about the virus. While remembering the educational work and activism that has been done to fight HIV/AIDS both in this community and around the world, we must recognize that more work is still needed to dispel myths about the virus, increase testing, and reduce the stigma surrounding an HIV-positive status.
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