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Much has changed in the fight against AIDS since the HIV epidemic hit 20 years ago. But there's much to be done. 

Fear Factor

Daphne L. Rankin, a sociology instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University, helped pioneer AIDS education in Virginia. In 1993, she developed the first undergraduate college course on the disease in the state.

Each year, students in Rankin's "AIDS: Myths and Realities" course spearhead World AIDS Day activities at VCU. This year, World AIDS Day, Saturday, Dec. 1, marks the 20th year of the HIV epidemic in this country.

As of December 2000, there were 7,672 cases of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in Virginia and 5,843 cases of AIDS. Style recently sat down with Rankin, 47, to find out what's happening.

Style: You are recognized nationally for your efforts to bring an AIDS curriculum into the college classroom, and you also spend a lot of time teaching younger kids about the virus and other sexually transmitted diseases. Why is HIV/AIDS education so important to you?

Rankin: Probably because when I started teaching my human sexuality class, in January of 1989, one of the first changes I made was to add an HIV-prevention education component. And I found, after doing that two or three semesters, that the day after we covered sexually transmitted diseases, the day after we talked about HIV, the day after we had a speaker come in and talk about living with HIV, I would get to work and there would be a line down the hall from my office.

What I heard for most of that day was, "Ms. Rankin, let me tell you what I've done. Do you think I'm OK?" And it really worried me that our students really didn't know, and if they did know, they were taking too many things for granted, and they were taking chances that they shouldn't.

That, plus the fact that I'm a mother — I have a 21-year-old and a 17-year-old. And I look at the education they're receiving and thought in a university setting we need to be much more open to this.

Help put Richmond into perspective in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Who is being most affected by the virus here, and is enough being done to prevent the spread of the disease?

It's still the minority population that's being affected the most. And women.

Are we doing enough? I have a sexuality-educator bias here that tells me that until we really look at sexuality education as a comprehensive education program, we're never doing enough. We need to be very open and honest with our children; we need to tell them that putting yourself at risk can change your life in many ways. We need to be real honest and tell them abstinence is absolutely the best thing you can do to completely protect yourself.

But I also think we need to talk to them with the idea that, if not abstaining is their decision, then we need to empower them with knowledge that will help protect them, rather than giving them the "just say no" as the standard words of precaution. Because "just say no" doesn't teach anybody how to negotiate condom use. "Just say no" doesn't teach anybody how to negotiate sexual activity. We need to work with young people on decision-making and negotiation skills.

You've been involved in the AIDS fight for a long time. What are the most significant changes you've seen in the last 20 years in Richmond and nationally, and what hasn't changed?

One of the things that's changed is the faces of the patients. The faces of the patients aren't all young gay men. We've seen funding for HIV programs, whether it's AIDS drug assistance programs, prevention-education programs, grow. You see people actually living with the virus. We have wonderful health-care providers in the Richmond area for people living with HIV and AIDS. Seeing people look toward the future is probably the biggest difference we've seen in 20 years. Instead of people thinking about how long they have, we're seeing people actually looking toward the future because of the drugs that are available.

Fear hasn't changed. I see that in working with college students — the fear of "what if I have it, what if I get it?"

From a prevention-education perspective, what's changed for me is education. In 1996, I went to the International AIDS Conference in Vancouver. It was the year they started talking about protease inhibitors, and all the new drugs were coming out. Once they did that, prevention education was pushed into the back corner. All of a sudden, we had drugs some people were calling a cure. But in the last few years, we've seen prevention-education money come back again.

If you had the chance to tell people one thing they could do to help fight the spread of HIV and AIDS, what would it be?

The same thing I use in my class: "Each one, teach one." When you learn a fact, tell someone else that fact. If you hear a myth, and you know it's a myth, dispel that myth. In the long run, that's going to spread education, that's going to cut down on stigma, and it's going to help with the prevention effort.

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