AFAN president learned about strength from grandmother living with HIV

When people hear the words HIV or AIDS, many think of gay men. But HIV/AIDS knows no gender bias.

Summerlin resident Nikki Ferraro, board president of Aid for AIDS of Nevada (AFAN), knows that all too well. Her grandmother on her mother’s side, Barbara Farrell, is living with HIV.

“She’s all-around awesome,” Ferraro said, “probably one of the strongest women I’ve ever met in my entire life. … I’ve never seen her cry.”

AFAN’s 25th annual AIDS Walk Las Vegas is planned for April 19 at Town Square Las Vegas, 6605 Las Vegas Blvd. South. Penn & Teller are returning as grand marshals. Registration is scheduled from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., with the opening ceremonies set for 8 a.m. and the walk for 9 a.m. The walk is approximately 3 miles.

Participants are urged to raise as much as they can or make a personal contribution of $25. For walkers who raise $250, Penn & Teller will match it. For more information, visit afanlv.org or call 702-382-2326.

Last year, the event saw an estimated 11,000 walkers. Ferraro said she hopes even more will participate this year.

She recalled how her grandmother took over raising her when she was 5. Her grandparents had an automotive business near Niagara Falls, N.Y. When her grandfather became ill, Ferraro’s grandmother Barbara took over the business and managing the household.

“He kept getting sicker and sicker, and we didn’t know why,” Ferraro said.

Her grandfather was diagnosed with AIDS and died in 1994. Her grandmother was tested in 1993. Though she had no symptoms, she was HIV-positive.

“I was 9. I was terrified,” Ferraro said. “I was afraid I was going to lose her. I didn’t know anything about it at all. … I had to go get tested myself, and it was probably one of the worst experiences of my life. I was terrified, but she stayed with me, and she was very strong.”

As for Farrell, she said she knew she as at risk because she learned her husband was active with gay men and known prostitutes. Still, the test results were a blow.

“I knew I had to do whatever it took to get on with our lives, period,” she said. “… You do what you need to do to protect everyone from the nightmare you are now dealing with.”

Having her grandmother test positive for HIV meant Ferraro never associated AIDS with the gay lifestyle, she said.

“I didn’t know it was a gay thing to start with,” Ferraro said.

According to the World AIDS Day 2014 report, since the start of the epidemic, 39 million people have died of AIDS and more than 35 million are living with HIV/AIDS. Only in Sub-Saharan Africa are statistics kept specifically on women. In 2013, there were 23.5 million to 26.1 million people living with HIV there. Women accounted for 58 percent.

“The sad part about that,” said Ferraro, “is that about 3.2 million of those are under the age of 15. It’s a hard number to see on paper.

“The idea of HIV and AIDS having a specific face or gender, I see more women than anything, that I deal with,” Ferraro said. “We have a women’s group at AFAN called Mothers, Sisters, Daughters that we started about two years ago. It was sad because, in the very beginning, it was just me and maybe four or five women who showed up. Now, we have anywhere from 18 to 20 women who come. It’s nice that they’re coming. It’s sad that we have so many women. I honestly don’t think people see it as just a gay thing anymore. I think there are many, many faces of AIDS.”

For more information about AFAN, visit afanlv.org or call 702-382-2326.

To reach Summerlin Area View reporter Jan Hogan, email jhogan@viewnews.com or call 702-387-2949.

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