For years, Nini Tatah Mentan watched her mother fight against AIDS through her local nonprofit.
Today, the University of Minnesota junior hopes to follow in her footsteps. For the second consecutive year, she is spearheading the African Student Union’s annual “Redspots” events.
ASA is collaborating with seven other multicultural student groups and community AIDS prevention advocates for a pair of discussions about the issue that will be held Wednesday and Thursday — World AIDS Day — from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Coffman Union.
AIDS has killed more than 25 million people in the last two decades, according to the World Health Organization, which calls it one of the worst pandemics in history. The Minnesota Department of Health reports that in the U.S. a person is infected with HIV every 9 1/2 minutes.
“This is an issue that affects everyone,” Tatah Mentan said. “It has no race, gender or orientation. The whole point of ‘Redspots’ is to let people know we can make a difference.”
Peter Carr, state AIDS director for MDH, said this year’s World AIDS Day awareness efforts come at a pivotal time.
Because of treatments that allow people to live comfortably with the disease, Carr said there is a misconception, especially among young people, that AIDS is no longer an issue.
“I’m the head of AIDS at the health department, and people at a party will run into me and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t think that was still an issue,’” he said. “But it is.”
Minnesota is 36th in the nation for HIV infection rates, but about 320 new cases of HIV infections are reported in the state each year.
Even though AIDS and HIV infections are on the decline for most of the state’s population, Carr said numbers are rapidly increasing among college-aged males — a trend around the nation.
ASA’s event is one of 12 World AIDS Day efforts that will be held around the state, according to the MDH website.
This year, the theme of their discussions is “Easy as ABC,” which addresses three preventative measures students can take to minimize their risk of HIV infection: abstinence, being faithful and condom use.
The ABC’s are effective because they are flexible enough to consider all lifestyles, which is necessary for prevention efforts on college campuses, Carr said.
He said the most important advice he has for University students is to get tested and become proactive about sexual health.
Another major theme is the stigma surrounding the disease, which will be addressed in Wednesday’s student-led discussion.
Akudo Omeoga, president of Sigma Lambda Gamma, a multicultural sorority and co-sponsor of the event, said negative stigma and miseducation among students are primary reasons why events like “Redspots” are important.
“We’ll be talking about the stigmas we attach as a society,” she said. “We think of it as the other, but it’s not the other. Anybody can be impacted by AIDS.”
Mentan said she and other ASA members put a lot of time and effort into the events because they hit so close to home.
She and her mother — originally from Cameroon — got involved in HIV/AIDS prevention work because they have seen how the disease has impacted Africa. According to WHO data, 67 percent of infected people worldwide live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Carr said African immigrant populations face some of the most severe stigma from within the Minnesota community, which prevents many people from getting tested.
Ayana Cole, president of the University’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, a collaborating group, attended last year’s “Redspots” events.
She said the experience of engaging with people living with the disease was powerful.
Thursday’s panel will feature a doctor and two community workers.
Like many participating organizers, Cole said she has a personal connection to the issue. One of her family members was recently diagnosed with the disease.
“Maybe there’s not enough education about these issues on college campuses,” she said. “We need to use the voice of student advocates to give insight to the community.”
Both discussions will be held in the President’s Room in Coffman Union. They are free and open to the public.
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