Adrienne Gutzwa lost her best friend to AIDS almost exactly 25 years ago.
“I think a lot of people think it’s over now, just because you can live with it,” said Gutzwa, 61. “People are still diagnosed every day.”
Gutzwa took part in the 29th annual AIDS Walk Las Vegas on Sunday morning in remembrance of her friend Kenneth, who died April 6, 1994. She hopes that people diagnosed with the disease won’t face the same stigma her friend did.
“When Kenneth was sick in the hospital, people wore suits like hazmats, you know. They were so fearful,” Gutzwa said. “We’ve come a long way, but we need to keep going.”
More than 3,000 people participated in the event at Town Square, and more than $250,000 was raised, according to an organizer.
Among them was Paul Speirs-Hernandez, 50, who has lived in Las Vegas since 1992. He said he has supported the walk and its organizer, Aid for AIDS of Nevada, for decades.
“AIDS is a bit out of fashion, because it’s not in the news all the time,” Paul Speirs-Hernandez said. “However, it remains a serious health challenge that’s a long-term care challenge.”
According to the Division of Public and Behavioral Health, 486 Nevadans were diagnosed with HIV in 2017. Of those diagnoses, 439 were in Clark County. Of those in Clark County, 154 were diagnosed with AIDS.
“There’s all sorts of folks with all sorts of demographics who are friends and neighbors who need our help,” Speirs-Hernandez said. “That’s why we’re here.”
Andrew Hanson, 62, said he appreciated the sense of community created by the AIDS Walk and is glad to raise money for the cause.
“I’m a gay man that lived through the AIDS crisis and saw a whole generation of my peers die,” he said. “… So obviously we have a personal connection to the AIDS tragedy.”
Hanson, who attended the walk with his husband, said he never imagined that the public’s perception toward gay people would shift the way it has. He hopes that, like once-widespread intolerance to gay marriage, the stigma surrounding AIDS will fade.
Event organizer Andrew Ryan reminded that AIDS isn’t exclusive to the gay community.
“HIV/AIDS does not discriminate … There’s no demographic that it hasn’t touched,” he said. “We have a drug epidemic, and it’s not just sexually transmitted. That’s another conversation that I don’t hear enough.”
The AIDS Walk helps facilitate those conversations, he said.
“(AIDS is) still something that people are afraid to talk about, and it affects all of us,” Ryan said. “It’s my job to make sure that it continues to be on the front of people’s minds in our community, because the fight is nowhere near over.”