HELENA — When people think of AIDS, love probably doesn’t come to mind.
But often the promise of love, not promiscuity, is what can lead to HIV infections, Bozeman-based AIDS Outreach Director Greg Smith told those gathered inside the Capitol rotunda.
“That’s how I got infected,” he said.
Smith was one of five Montanans honored by Gov. Steve Bullock in conjunction with World AIDS Day.
Officials said the international awareness day’s goals — preventing new HIV infections, stopping AIDS-related deaths and ending discrimination associated with the disease — are becoming real possibilities.
“That’s a very, very lofty goal, but it’s an achievable goal,” said Richard Opper, director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Bullock said some 30 years ago, once the HIV/AIDS outbreak emerged, an end to the epidemic was hardly imaginable.
“This year, the picture is very different,” he said, noting that tools for preventing infection are increasingly available and advancements in treatment have improved the outlook for those with HIV.
However, Bullock and others said HIV infection rates aren’t decreasing in recent years in Montana or the rest of the country.
“The fight’s not over,” he said, “not by a long shot.”
The state reports an average of 25 to 30 new infections each year in Montana, and just shy of 600 residents are living with HIV or AIDS. The disease has killed more than 400 Montanans since 1985.
While Montana’s numbers may sound low, they don’t stand out from the rates among other states, said Laurie Kops, supervisor for the state’s HIV and sexually transmitted disease programs in DPHHS.
Among the honorees was Lisa Fairman, a massage therapist in Helena, who was recognized for her work with HIV-positive women at an annual retreat.
In her remarks, Fairman said massage offer benefits beyond pain relief, especially for those living with the stigma of AIDS.
She said some of the women have told her the therapy is the only time they receive physical contact.
“It’s about touch, it’s about connecting with people,” she said.
Three individuals based in Missoula were also acknowledged at Monday’s event: Stephanie Cole, who conducts HIV testing and counseling in Missoula; Christopher Gehring, a Missoula outreach worker; and Chantz Thilmony for his work with the Gay Men’s Task Force.
Several of the honorees gave remarks that emphasized the importance of AIDS prevention efforts and called for state government support.
“The state of Montana has never allocated a single penny for prevention,” Smith said. “Isn’t 30 years long enough to avoid a hard conversation?”
Federal funding for DPHHS AIDS-related support will drop to $750,000 next year, down from over $1 million in recent years, Kops said.
Her department distributes funds to outreach and treatment organizations around the state. It aims to reach young people and other at-risk groups, where Kops said most new infections occur.
“Without government support, we cannot be successful,” Gehring said.
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