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Africa AIDS Exhibit Opens in New York


For the next few days, New Yorkers catching trains at Grand Central Terminal will also have the opportunity to take a virtual trip through an African village. It is a journey organizers hope will inspire people to join the fight against the global AIDS pandemic.

The World Health Organization says about 700,000 children, under the age of 15, were infected with the HIV virus last year. About that same number of people pass through New York's Grand Central Terminal each day.

That's why the relief organization World Vision is using the major transportation hub to present a four-day Africa AIDS exhibit.

World Vision official Steven Reynolds says the exhibit is aimed at raising public awareness about the disease.

"It's interesting to have an African village set up in a grand place like Grand Central Terminal is really quite unique and I think it will give people who are busy, on their way to work a chance to stop and reflect about something that they normally wouldn't have the time to do," said Steven Reynolds. "Interactive doesn't even describe it. It's a full immersion in a life of a child who is impacted by AIDS in Africa."

The exhibit is a replica of an African village and visitors are guided by a personal audio tour. The stories of four children are told. One Ugandan child, Stephen, was abducted and forced to join the Lord's Resistance Army. The replica includes a small sleeping area, a simulated health clinic and a chapel with pictures of people who have died from the disease.

Pamela Barnes heads the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. She took the tour and said the exhibit will be very effective in helping educate people.

"If I were to ask anyone coming through Grand Central Station if they knew that 500,000 children are dying a year, I bet a few small percentage would know that," said Pamela Barnes. "So my hope is that this exhibit raises that awareness significantly."

The exhibit comes 25 years after the first major U.S. report about the disease. Barnes says despite progress in fighting AIDS, the fight is far from over.

"We've been somewhat self congratulatory about the fact that here in the U.S., we've made great progress," she said. "I'm afraid the message of urgency for the children of the world has been missed. We must get that message out and I think this exhibit begins to do that."

HIV/AIDS educator Princess Kasune Zulu of Zambia, who is HIV-positive, agrees. She says the exhibit has the ability to be life-changing as visitors hear the children's stories. Zulu challenges people to do what they can to fight the disease.

"If I could, having lost both of my parents, now living with a virus and yet I am determined to make a difference, what about you? What about you as an individual? As a father, a mother, a brother and a sister," said Kasune Zulu.

New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Antonia Novello says while many people in Africa are infected with the HIV/AIDS because prevention tools are not available, she believes many Americans have the resources, but are not using them.

"In spite of the best medications, the best treatment and the best prevention we can provide we still have people infected, so we are on the other side - everything is available and therefore, when I need it I can get it," said Antonia Novello. "And then you tend not to protect yourself."

New York City's head of immigrant affairs, Guillermo Linares, acknowledged that communication barriers can make it difficult in diverse cities like New York to try to educate people about HIV/AIDS. He believes more groups like World Vision are needed to reach all populations.

"We cannot turn our heads the other way when there is something that we can do," he said. "I think this exhibit helps bring to light in New York City and in the U.S. the fact that there is always something that we can do to make a difference."

Academy Award-winning actress Kathy Bates, who has lost several friends to the disease, also toured the exhibit.

"The thing that really grabbed me about this event was that it's an empathic experience to go through a small museum of this kind where everything is shut out except - you have your earphones on and so it's really possible to go deep into that world for just 10 minutes to just imagine," said Kathy Bates. "And I think the most powerful tool we have is walking in someone else's shoes. That's the only thing that really teaches about someone else's pain and someone else's need."

For those who do not live in New York, an interactive version of the World Vision AIDS exhibit is available online.