Thirty years ago, the first cases of HIV/AIDS in the United States were documented. World AIDS Day came into existence seven years later, on Dec. 1, 1988.

This day continues to be set aside each year to bring awareness and education about a disease and compassion for the estimated 56,000 men and women in the United States who are diagnosed each year.

I am one of those people who is living with HIV, so I know well the fears and problems of those who have the disease.

I became infected in 1989 after one sexual encounter with a neighbor I dated. After my diagnosis the next year at the age of 46, I did not think I would live a year because of how sick I was. I did not tell my family members at first because I was ashamed and terrified they would not accept me as their loving sister any longer, but I was wrong.

In the early ’90s, the disease was considered a gay men’s disease. I would go to appointments and be the only woman in the waiting room. I did not know any other infected people, male or female.

Today that has all changed. HIV/AIDS is a disease that knows no barriers; it affects young, old, men, women, heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. All women and men need to be aware of it, no matter their age or ethnicity or sexual orientation.

In Maine, 1,500 people are infected with HIV/AIDS; about 350 more do not know they have it. Women account for one in four new diagnoses and deaths from AIDS, with a new diagnosis of HIV every 35 minutes.

The disease has no cure, but it is preventable.

HIV is transmitted only through sexual contact and by injection drug use. The preventions are easy: Do not share needles and do not have unprotected sex. HIV cannot be passed on to another by shaking hands, hugging or sharing food or drink.

Getting tested can be scary, but not as scary as dying.

In central Maine, we have access to a terrific doctor, Mark Rolfe, and the caring, compassionate staff of MaineGeneral’s Horizon Program.

The Horizon Program’s mission is to provide quality, compassionate and comprehensive medical and social services to all identified HIV-positive individuals in central and mid-coast Maine. With offices in Gardiner and Augusta, the program provides:

* A clinic for medical services and interaction with health care professionals.

* Counseling and support for people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

* Case management for people living with HIV/AIDS.

* Educational programs and community outreach

Nancy Russell serves as the client advocate and special events coordinator working for MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Horizon Program, organizing monthly educational lunches and special events such as World AIDS Day.

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