First Impressions of HIV/AIDS in Maine


Messalonskee High School











The Media











My Parents

My personal impressions of whether AIDS is a threat nationally, in Maine, and in my hometown of Augusta have been shaped by a variety of sources, including but not limited to, my high school health curriculum, the media, and my parents.  When asked on the first day of class to estimate how many cumulative AIDS cases have been reported for Augusta, how many cumulative AIDS cases have been reported for the neighboring town of Waterville, and what percent of the AIDS cases in Maine are female, my guesses were 30 cases, 20 cases, and 20%, respectively.  Although these estimations proved to not be extremely different from the actual statistics (19 cases, 10 cases, and 13%, respectively), they were noticeably higher, suggesting that for some unknown reason, I viewed the disease to be more prevalent in Maine than is actually the case. 

Since my high school health class was seven years ago, I only have a vague recollection of what was taught.  In order to trigger my memory, I emailed two of the current health teachers at Messalonskee High School and asked them if they could provide me with information concerning HIV/AIDS education in their class.  The answers that I received were extremely useful, but shocking.  At Messalonskee High School, HIV/AIDS is taught as part of a Sexually Transmitted Infection and Diseases unit that lasts for six days.  Students view two videos, "This Ain't No Dress Rehearsal" and "In Our Own Words," and then participate in a subsequent question and answer session providing specific information including how the disease is transmitted, how it is not transmitted, who it affects, its prevalence in the state of Maine, and how to avoid contracting it.  Students are also required to use technology to gather information about HIV/AIDS, to construct data tables based on this information, and to attend presentations by a guest speaker living with HIV and a representative from Family Planning.  What was most surprising about my previous health teachers' descriptions of the HIV/AIDS program at Messalonskee High School was how extensive it is.  Perhaps I just have a bad memory, but I find it very hard to believe that I could forget six days of guest speakers and projects on the topic, leading me to conclude that my own experience in the course seven years ago was not quite as educational.  But then again, when dealing with a disease that has only been in our consciousness since the early 1980s, seven years is a very long time.  Perhaps seven years ago, AIDS was still an extremely taboo topic in Maine and the state did not expect high schools to teach as much about it as they do now. 

My parents are both health care providers, so their stories about AIDS in the workplace have also affected my perceptions of the disease.  As a nurse at the University of Minnesota in the 1980s, my mom has told me how unnerving it was to be seeing new cases of this "mysterious disease" and not knowing what caused it or what to tell her patients.  Likewise, my father has been working as an oral surgeon in Waterville, Maine since before I was born, and when I recently asked him about his experiences with AIDS, he told me how he used to witness heated arguments between health care providers and legislators when Maine was first developing a comprehensive HIV/AIDS plan for the state.  Many doctors were infuriated when legislation was passed considering AIDS to be a disability when it was clearly an infectious disease.  Although my father told me that the goal of this legislation was to ensure that AIDS patients were offered fair and equal health care, he also expressed how, in the early days of the epidemic, many doctors were simply scared that not being able to ask about the disease on health history forms would increase their chances of unknowingly contracting it from patients.

Honestly, I rarely read the local newspaper before coming to Colgate, but if I had, I would have learned a fair amount about AIDS in Maine.  For instance, in Maine's largest newspaper, The Portland Press Herald, there were 704 articles written about HIV and/or AIDS from 1995 to the present.  However, out of these 704 articles, only three were written in the past year, suggesting that the Maine media does not consider HIV/AIDS to be as critical of a problem as in the past.  Many of these articles were about World AIDS Day celebrations in Maine, a few were about the controversy over legislation making HIV/AIDS a disability rather than a disease, some were about state AIDS funding, still more were about HIV prevention and needle exchange programs.  However, by far the most newspaper articles I found were written on  misperceptions of drug therapy and how some individuals are beginning to view HIV as a chronic, controllable disease.  The articles described how these false beliefs concerning drug therapy are producing a greater complacency towards the disease throughout the state, particularly among those in high risk groups (i.e., MSM and IDU).  For instance, one article published in 1998 titled "False Beliefs in Cure Doom AIDS Project," described how beliefs that new drug therapies for the disease are a cure, instead of just a way for victims to live longer, is leading to fewer volunteers and severely hindering AIDS prevention organizations in Maine (10).  Another, more recent article titled "AIDS Day: 'There Are Still People Dying'; Some Health Officials Worry That Medical Advances Have Led to Complacency About the Disease," communicated a similar plea, claiming that even though "an HIV diagnosis these days isn't the death sentence it was 25 years ago," it is essential for Mainers to recognize that the disease is still a serious threat and that people are still dying from it (5).

During the past year I have developed even more memorable impressions of AIDS both internationally and in my hometown, through my study abroad experience in Cape Town, South Africa and an internship at Medical Care Development in Augusta.  Although my conversations with my parents, my high school education, and my lack of exposure to the newspaper all played a role in shaping my overall view of the disease, it was these two recent experiences that cemented these impressions in my mind and led me to estimate higher AIDS statistics for my hometown than the actual figures.