Orange County

New infections make learning about AIDS history, transmission vital

Elizabeth Trefney says seeing her uncle's name on an AIDS Quilt panel brought her to tears. "But I knew my uncle wouldn’t want me to be sad,” she says. “When you look at the quilt you see stories of life and love."
Elizabeth Trefney says seeing her uncle's name on an AIDS Quilt panel brought her to tears. "But I knew my uncle wouldn’t want me to be sad,” she says. “When you look at the quilt you see stories of life and love." UNC Media Hub

Beams of light illuminated the three-decade-old quilt in the lobby of the Student Union.

This quilt honors people who died of AIDS, including Jeremy Trefney, who got sick before treatment for AIDS was viable. When he died, his friends made a panel for the quilt. Trefney’s is one of eight on display, one of over 48,000 such panels made over the years.

The ceremony in the Frank Porter Graham Student Union included a discussion on living with HIV/AIDS today. Elizabeth Trefney, Jeremy Trefney’s niece, and her family helped to organize this event that filled the union lobby.

“I looked up and I was brought to tears, but I knew my uncle wouldn’t want me to be sad,” Trefney said. “When you look at the quilt you see stories of life and love. When they shined the lights up, I read from the bottom of one of the panels, it said ‘love really is the answer.’”

The UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore said her interest in HIV/AIDS comes from a course she took her first year: "Public Health 420, The AIDS Course."

“I learned so many specifics, and so much about the history,” Trefney said. “I was just blown away. Because there were just so many lives that were lost. I had never once in a class, outside of this course in college, been talked to about the history.”

The class is taught by Ronald Strauss, who brings in guest lecturers such as Joseph Eron, a UNC professor of medicine and the director of UNC’s Center for AIDS Research.

“Deaths from HIV are going down, so that's a really good thing,” Eron said. “The problem is new infections. While they've gone down a little bit, they're still around 40,000 new HIV infections every year in the U.S. So it's still a substantial problem.”

This is not the only course in the area. Duke’s biology program has a course on "AIDS and Other Emerging Diseases", and East Carolina Universit has "AIDS HIV Disease in Modern Society." Eron said courses like these are important because while HIV/AIDS isn’t talked about much on college campuses anymore, it’s still a problem.

“We've certainly documented that there have been outbreaks of HIV on college campuses in North Carolina,” Eron said. “We definitely see young people, who attend any college. I have patients in my clinic from N.C. State and UNC, so it's definitely out there.”

Dr. Thevy Chai of UNC’s Campus Health Services also said continued education is vital.

“I think when they come to college we need to educate them a little bit more about actual diseases, incubation period, when to retest, and that it’s OK to talk to your partners,” Chai said.

One issue with the education of HIV in recent years is the general lack of awareness for the disease. It has fallen out of the public conversation.

“I think people want to hear about something new,” Eron said. “I think that's why it's not as prominent in the media. I think the message here is that it's still a problem. Especially in the Southeast where we live. That's now where the majority of new HIV cases are, and most HIV-related deaths are in the Southeast.”

These are things Elizabeth Trefney understands. She has not suffered with the disease, and her uncle died before she was even born, but that doesn’t mean she can’t care.

“I hope that someday I can be a spokesperson,” Trefney said. “I hope that I can help people start talking about these subjects and help them learn more.”

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