My senior project is complete, my final paper has been handed in and high school graduation has come and gone. However, I will continue to consider the topic of that project and paper - an exploration of the AIDS epidemic globally (in Uganda) and locally (in Charleston, South Carolina) as I begin the next chapter of my life this fall as a freshman at Georgetown University.
The nation's capital -- which has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the country and will host this summer's International AIDS Conference -- seems a world apart from my home town of Charleston, where, I learned through my project, many residents are misinformed and reluctant to talk about HIV/AIDS.
My high school views its senior project as an opportunity to challenge students in their pursuit of intellectual and meaningful growth. After being introduced to the work of Accordia Global Health Foundation -- a nonprofit organization devoted to overcoming the burden of infectious diseases in Africa by creating innovative health models, building centers of excellence and strengthening medical institutions -- I decided to focus my project on HIV/AIDS. Since its founding in 2004, Accordia has joined forces with members of Congress, executives of Fortune 100 companies, the brightest professionals in the medical field, leaders of academic institutions around the world and generous donors who have contributed time, treasure and talent to combat HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.
At 18, I am one of Accordia's youngest partners. When I first met Dr. Alex Coutinho, the executive director of the Infectious Diseases Institute of Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, he told me: "Young people have the transformational power to take an issue and put it out there to millions of other young people." I saw this firsthand this spring during my visits to high schools throughout Charleston.
I was a lot like many young people in my hometown. Until recently, I knew little about HIV/AIDS. My interest in infectious diseases first developed in the summer of 2011, when I worked in my aunt's molecular medicine lab at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In addition, my family had known for many years Suzanne Mrlik, the daughter of the late Dr. Merle Sande, who co-founded Accordia. A renowned infectious disease specialist, he was responsible for a number of advances in the fight against HIV in this country and aboard. Under Dr. Sande's vision and direction, Accordia, in partnership with Pfizer Inc. and an alliance of leading physician-scientists, established the Infectious Diseases Institute in Uganda.
Working with my aunt and hearing from Suzanne about Dr. Sande's groundbreaking work inspired my project, which focused on reducing the misconceptions, common stigmas and lack of knowledge associated with HIV/AIDS, particularly among high school students in my home town. (According to the U.S. Census, Charleston has the 20th highest HIV infection rate in the country.) Understanding the value of thinking both locally AND globally, I wanted to address the impact of the pandemic, not just in Charleston, but around the world.
Part of fighting the AIDS pandemic is making sure people have the facts. When I first started speaking publicly to students, a lot of them didn't know what I was talking about. HIV/AIDS isn't well publicized in Charleston. One high school student asked me if you can get AIDS from sitting on a toilet seat.
The more I spoke, the more confident I got, and the more informed my audiences became. My hope is that the students of Charleston are better educated when they leave for college, where they will be with a much more diverse community and use it to keep themselves and others safe.
In addition to educating young people about HIV/AIDS, I am also committed to raising awareness about Accordia's work in Africa, where the organization is helping to build a better future for Africa and African healthcare. As a recent high school graduate and an unofficial ambassador for Accordia, I hope to set a good example for other young people who share my commitment to spreading the truth about HIV/AIDS and to partner with Accordia and others to build a vibrant, healthy world where every individual can thrive.
This month, I will serve as Accordia's youth advocate at the D.C. YouthForce, the youth pre-conference held before the International AIDS Conference. D.C. YouthForce is part of a global platform for international, regional and local youth organizations that focus on HIV and AIDS, as well as on sexual and reproductive health and the rights of young people.
At the pre-conference, I hope to meet people my age and older who share the same passion for spreading the truth about HIV/AIDS and preventing transmission. I plan to learn as much as I can about new prevention strategies and about monitoring and evaluation strategies. I also am hoping to learn new, effective ways to voice the cause. The AIDS-free generation will only come if we all do our part to spread awareness and fight the battle.