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Though World AIDS Day this year did not feature any major Penn events, a handful of individuals continue to actively address the disease.

Medical student Luke Messac attended a Philadelphia rally for President Barack Obama in late October with several other students from Harvard University, where they protested against the president.

Though Messac considers himself an “Obama supporter” ­— he served as a field organizer for Obama’s 2008 campaign — he feels that the president “has not fulfilled his promise” of $1 billion per year in funding for the global AIDS relief effort.

“Over the last two years [Obama] has asked Congress for only about one-fifth of what he promised,” Messac wrote in an e-mail.

Messac and his colleagues held up signs and shouted at the president for about 30 seconds, until they were drowned out by the booing and “yes-we-can” chants of the crowd at the rally.

Aside from individual students, Penn AIDS Awareness — a student group dedicated to promoting awareness of HIV/AIDS on campus — tries to “get through the whole spectrum” of issues relating to the disease, according to PAA President Maya Kahn-Woods, a Nursing senior.

This weekend, PAA is hosting a fundraiser for Grassroot Soccer, an initiative through which professional soccer players teach African children about AIDS.

Despite PAA’s efforts and contingency of about 15 “active members”, Kahn-Woods acknowledged that at Penn, as in “any educated community, there’s a big stigma about HIV/AIDS.”

Penn students may think none of their peers get HIV, she added, “but unfortunately that’s not the case … you have the same chance of getting HIV as someone in Africa if you’re practicing unsafe sex or using dirty needles.”

PAA has not yet worked with any student who is openly diagnosed as HIV positive or with AIDS — perhaps because many do not feel comfortable coming out and saying they have the disease — but the group would “welcome them wholeheartedly,” Kahn-Woods said.

For now, PAA is dedicated to involving more students in HIV/AIDS activism. “Fifteen people can’t make a substantial dent,” Kahn-Woods added, “but if we can get more people interested … we can get the ball rolling.”

But these Penn students’ efforts are not without precedent.

“Penn has a long history of involvement with HIV,” said Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center Director Bob Schoenberg, who founded ActionAIDS, Pennsylvania’s largest AIDS service organization today, in September of 1986.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s “the association between HIV/AIDS and the gay community was much stronger than it is now,” Schoenberg said, though “there is still a concern in the LGBT community.”

Medical developments at the end of the 20th century also decreased the mortality rates of AIDS patients, Schoenberg said. “People are now living with AIDS much longer than they did before.”

Schoenberg added that “predictably, interest in activism was highest when the risk seemed the greatest,” though there is still risk of HIV/AIDS today.

Despite concerns that college-aged students may be complacent about their susceptibility to AIDS, Student Health Service recently appointed its first staff member specifically responsible for administering HIV tests. “If there was sufficient data to indicate that [SHS] needed to hire someone, I assume the number of students getting tested is probably significant,” Schoenberg said of the hire.

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