Twenty-five years ago, the United States released its first report on what is now known as HIV & AIDS. While people in the developed world are living longer with the disease thanks to the availability of medicine and treatment, it's a far different story on the African continent. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports how the charity group World Vision is bringing the African AIDS experience into the heart of New York City.
It was not by accident that World Vision picked Grand Central Station as the venue for its five-day African AIDS exhibit.
"About 700,000 children, younger than the age of 15, were infected with HIV last year worldwide -- the same number of people that pass through Grand Central Terminal every day," said one speaker at the event.
That kind of traffic is the very reason the AIDS Experience is here: to spread the word to as many people as possible that AIDS is still a global pandemic.
"I don't think Americans understand how devastating this disease is in other parts of the world," said World Vision's Steven Reynolds. He spent six years in Africa and introduced rock star and African activist Bono to the problems people face there. He says the current 278 square meter exhibit in Vanderbilt Hall is more than just a message about the disease.
"Literally, it's bringing Africa to the U.S.,” he said. “It's an opportunity for us to give people a chance to feel, sense, hear, even smell the thatching of a thatch roof and to really give people a sense of what it's like to live in a community in Africa that is so devastated by AIDS right now."
The exhibit allows you to walk in the shoes of four people from Africa who are living with HIV and AIDS. It's a walk that American actress Kathy Bates took the first day the exhibit opened, motivated in part by the memory of friends who lost their lives to the disease.
"I just decided to come this morning to see what the exhibit is about. As an actor, I feel that empathy is the strongest tool we have in order to help people really understand what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes,” she said. “And I feel education and awareness is what we need now."
That education and awareness is a message transmitted through pictures of despair along the corridors of the exhibit… and through personal narratives of the people profiled, spoken through an MP3 player each visitor takes through the display.
"I experienced Olivia, and her life, and what it was like when she was raped, and what it was like when she discovered that she was HIV positive and that she had transmitted the disease to her child,” said Bates. “It's just a few minutes out of your life to think about someone else who might need your help, and it's so incredibly valuable for people to do."
Princess Kasune Zulu, an educator who is infected with HIV, hopes the personal journey of those profiled in the exhibit will prompt a public outpouring of support for the plight of Africans like her.
"Whatever you have to do, please create some time to go through someone's life in Africa, and together we can make this world a better place for our children, and our children to come. God bless you,” Ms. Zulu told the crowd.