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Chicago Exhibit Highlights Faces of AIDS - 2001-12-01

When AIDS was first identified in the United States 20 years ago, it was considered mostly a disease caught by white homosexual men. Today, an estimated 900,000 Americans have AIDS or the virus that causes it, HIV, and they come from all segments of the United States' population. A photo exhibit created in Chicago highlights the many faces of AIDS, and what it is like to live with the disease.

Just as the AIDS Memorial Quilt personalizes the thousands of Americans who have died from the disease during the last 20 years, the "Faces of AIDS" exhibit tells about those living with AIDS or HIV. Tracy Fischman is with the Chicago Health Department, which created the exhibit along with the State of Illinois Health Department.

"We realized that we really needed to get the stories of the people who were living with this disease, sort of their experiences, their trials and tribulations, their challenges, what it really means to live today, in the 21st century with HIV disease," she explains.

One hundred pictures of people with AIDS or HIV comprise the photo exhibit. The health department has also produced a book featuring interviews and stories about people with the disease and those who help them. Ms. Fischman says the interviewees live in 11 Midwestern states.

"Because if we do hear stuff, it tends to be about AIDS in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C., New York City," she says, " we do not hear a lot about HIV and AIDS in the Midwest, either in large, urban areas in the Midwest or rural communities."

The exhibit's creators said it was important to include people from the rural Midwest because a lot of Americans consider AIDS to be a big city disease. Among them at first was Daniel Ash. He is a Chicago Health Department marketing director who interviewed people for the exhibit and helped write the book.

"I would have never guessed that in these small towns in Minnesota, Ohio, or Wisconsin that you would have individuals struggling with this illness," he says.

Mr. Ash says in rural America, people with AIDS or HIV often feel isolated because the AIDS community where they live is smaller. Also, many neighbors might be ignorant of the disease and how it is spread, and avoid someone who has it. Mr. Ash says he met one doctor in rural Minnesota who would help patients keep their HIV status a secret in their hometowns.

"If he needed to meet them somewhere else, if they [the patient] knew someone else at the hospital and were coming to the hospital to see that doctor, others might put two-and-two together and realize that they were HIV positive, the doctor would meet that person at another doctor's office, just for that day," he explains.

The exhibit and book include a Roman Catholic priest in Oklahoma who says people are shocked to discover he is both gay and HIV-positive. It includes a teenager in Iowa so angry that his mother has AIDS that he starts fights at school. And it includes a Kansas woman who says HIV could happen to any other black woman in her church.

Laird Peterson of Chicago is featured in the exhibit.

"I wanted to be involved because I think it is important to show the public the many facets of people living with AIDS," he says. "That there is not any one stereotypical person who is living with AIDS."

Mr. Peterson says it is important for others to understand that while medication allows people in the United States with HIV and AIDS to live longer, it is not an easy life. It is also important for people to realize that, worldwide, the AIDS crisis is far from over.

"Every day of the year, we have another World Trade Center in the lives of people with AIDS. Over 5,000 people a day die, globally, of AIDS," he says.

The exhibit's creators hope it will also help boost public support for continued AIDS care, prevention and research programs.