COLUMBUS – Art Hanthorn volunteers for the annual AIDS Walk Central Ohio to raise money and awareness. But he also does it to honor the memory of his brother, Bill, who lost his life to the illness in 1994.
On Saturday morning, as hundreds walked and ran in the event that started and ended in the Arena District, Hanthorn helped keep things moving smoothly. To him, the large attendance and the more than $220,000 raised shows great progress in how AIDS is perceived since his brother died.
Back in 1994, AIDS and HIV, a virus that attacks the immune system and causes AIDS, was a taboo subject, even in Hanthorn’s extended family. He described AIDS as a “nightmare” word.
“It was not anything anyone wanted to talk about,” he said. “It was like a dirty dark secret.”
Bill Hanthorn had been living in Maine when he was diagnosed, and was eventually brought back to Ohio for treatment. Hanthorn said staff at the facility where his brother was kept had him put on a hazmat suit to go near his brother.
“They just didn’t know about AIDS and HIV like they do now,” Hanthorn said. “Then it was a death sentence. You were gonna die, and you were gonna die pretty quick.”
After his brother died, Hanthorn and his family began participating in marches in his memory. Hanthorn has been participating in the Central Ohio AIDS march since 2006.
“The walk seems to be growing every year,” he said.
Massive changes have come about in the medical and societal understandings of AIDS since the mid-1990s. The same disease that killed Hanthorn’s brother within a year of its detection can now be safely managed, and even suppressed, in its early stages as HIV.
Bill Hardy, the president and CEO of Equitas Health, the organization that hosted the event, said walks and awareness events were “absolutely” part of the reason the disease has become better understood.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Hardy, who has been working with Equitas for 25 years. He added that some advances, like pre-exposure medications that can be up to 99 percent effective in protecting someone from HIV, were things he didn’t think he would see in his lifetime.
Hardy said these events are important in keeping AIDS in the public eye. Because people aren’t dying within months of their diagnosis, Hardy said, it’s a challenge to keep awareness up.
As of 2016, more than 23,000 Ohioans were reported to be living with HIV, and more 5,000 were estimated to be living with HIV without knowing their status, according to the AIDS Walk’s website.
Hanthorn said he encourages everyone to get tested.
“People are still dying of HIV and AIDS,” Hanthorn said. “It’s still happening. People are still getting infected every year. It’s something that should be talked about more. There’s more to do.”
Bennett Leckrone is a fellow with the E.W. Scripps Statehouse News Bureau