An annual AIDS conference in Irvine is aiming to create change by targeting the most vulnerable — the county's youth, an event organizer said this week.
The sixth annual Youth Conference on AIDS, a free event, is hosted by the Africa Project Youth Board, the city of Irvine High School Youth Action Team and UCI AIDS Fundamentalists.
"In our communities, we are not as aware of HIV as they are in Africa where it is openly talked about," said Debra Bianchi, executive director of the Africa Project. "Here, you may not even know that you know someone with HIV."
And because it's not talked about, teens don't know enough about HIV risk factors and how to prevent contracting the disease, she said.
"Young people are vulnerable because it's not even a part of the conversation," Bianchi said.
The Africa Project visits local high schools and civic clubs to promote awareness.
Student Sierra Schiano was so moved at one of these outreach events at Irvine High School in 2009, she is now co-president of her high school chapter of the Africa Project.
"I think that there are a lot of misconceptions about AIDS/HIV and I think it's important to address them," she wrote in an email to the Daily Pilot. "People today — especially teenagers — have no idea how horrible it is to have AIDS and they also don't realize that it's not a distant virus (that) only affects people in Africa, but a very real sickness that anyone can get. Knowledge about the virus can help teens protect themselves and stop the spread of ignorance."
The conference will include multiple speakers and three workshops, which focus on the local and global impact of AIDS and breaking stereotypes associated with HIV/AIDS.
"We try our best to address all the different components of HIV and AIDS, including the social, medical and global impacts" said Steve Knollmiller, program coordinator for Irvine's High School Youth Action Team.
The seminars in past years have been well attended, with between 150 and 250 youths, he said.
"The feedback from students is always amazing," Knollmiller said. "They're blown away by information that they are learning."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports at there are 1.2 million Americans living with HIV, and approximately 50,000 more are infected every year. According to UNAIDS, the United Nations program on HIV/AIDS, 33.3 million people are living with HIV worldwide, including 2.5 million children.
If You Go
What: The sixth annual Youth Conference on AIDS
When: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 3
Where: Lakeview Senior Center, 20 Lake Road, Irvine