As HIV leaders change, the fight against an oft-forgotten virus remains the same

Karen Peterson and Samba Diallo, respectively outgoing and incoming executive director of the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont, hold signs outside their Brattleboro office. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — When Karen Peterson started working at the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont in 1993, the novice assistant worked daily in the shadow of an illness that was a certain death sentence.

Peterson would go on to witness vital advances in testing and treatment as she rose through the career ladder to become the executive director of the Brattleboro-based nonprofit in 2013. So why, when? she prepares to quit after three decades on the job, is her job harder than ever?

“I get comments like, ‘Does AIDS still exist?’ said Peterson. “People aren’t so aware of it anymore. It is no longer the focus as it has been for so many years.

While most residents are focused on Covid-19, Vermont’s three AIDS service organizations face an ongoing caseload. Nearly 700 people statewide are living with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes the disease, according to the Vermont Department of Health. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to shift more of its financial aid from rural areas with fewer people and lower perceived risk to urban centers with larger populations.

“It’s harder to find funding for a state like Vermont,” said Peterson, who sympathizes with his counterparts at Vermont Cares in Burlington and the Upper Valley HIV/HCV Resource Center.

Peterson, 58, was a high school student in 1981 when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first classified AIDS as an incurable and fatal disease. Joining the AIDS Project five years after its founding in 1988, she was hired for what was supposed to be a four-week part-time temporary job.

“Growing up in Vermont, I hadn’t heard much about AIDS and didn’t know anyone who had it,” Peterson said. “There weren’t many customers, and they stayed with us for a short time. We were helping people die.

This changed in the 1990s with the advent of antiretroviral drugs. Since the start of the epidemic, an estimated 40 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses — and today an equal number are living with HIV.

This last figure is both good and bad news. At least a dozen or more Vermonters, 30,000 Americans, and 1.5 million people worldwide are newly diagnosed each year. But an infection that older generations once feared is now often dismissed by young people as just a sexually transmitted disease – even though treatment is expensive and necessary for the rest of life.

Over the past decade, the AIDS Project has served an ever-growing array of approximately 70 clients in Bennington and Windham counties. But over the same period, its annual budget has dropped 15%, from $529,000 in 2012 to $447,000 this year. As a result, the organization was forced to cut a full-time office position — the one Peterson once held — as well as staff for prevention efforts focused on sexual health.

On the other hand, more money for drug-related projects is available due to concern over an increase in opioid overdoses. The AIDS Project’s Syringe Services program, for example, offers harm reduction education and equipment such as Narcan and sterile needles, as well as testing for HIV and hepatitis C.

Samba Diallo experienced the change firsthand. The 36-year-old started at the AIDS Project as a Direct Service Associate in 2019, then moved up to HIV Prevention Specialist in 2021 and Harm Reduction Coordinator this year due to changes in focus and of financing. He is now set to succeed Peterson when she leaves on her 30th birthday in January.

“I want to continue providing services,” Diallo said, “and add a new perspective.”

The other two Vermont AIDS organizations tell similar stories of attempts to get attention and money for their cause.

In Burlington, former Vermont CARES executive director Peter Jacobsen handed over his responsibilities last spring to colleague Theresa Vezina, who leads an organization that serves Addison, Caledonia, Chittenden, Essex, Franklin, Grand Isle counties. , Lamoille, Orleans, Rutland and Washington.

“A lot of the work we do is about raising awareness,” Vezina said. “Our goal is to focus on creating increased access to health care and social services.

In the Upper Valley, the HIV/HCV Resource Center serves Orange and Windsor Counties under the direction of Executive Director Laura Byrne.

“We face the same challenges,” Byrne said. “There’s a whole education component that we’re all trying to do.”

Back in Brattleboro, Peterson knows the staff will keep coming and going. But when it comes to HIV and AIDS, “our message,” she says, “is, yes, it’s still there.

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About Bradley J. Bridges

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