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Sound Off: Actress Jurnee Smollett on World AIDS Day

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I've never known a world in which HIV/AIDS didn't exist. Growing up, images of the virus were sewn into my memory; the colorful panels on the AIDS Quilt; the shiny red ribbons my mom wore; the tragic death of Ryan White; and Magic Johnson's press conference. What affected me most of all was the heartbreaking story of a little girl not much older than myself who was born with HIV. Until Hydeia Broadbent boldly shared her story on daytime talk shows like Oprah, it hadn't dawned on me that little girls who looked like me were at risk. Initially, news of HIV/AIDS was in everyone's face and got our attention. Over the years -- despite ads, fundraisers, and more -- our community has grown desensitized while the virus continues to silently kill us. Already, 25 million members of our human family have died from AIDS. That's equivalent to the combined populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Dallas, Boston, Seattle, Memphis, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Miami, Denver, Wichita, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. Today, over 30 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS. Over one million people in the U.S. have the disease, and more than 500,000 of them are African American, though we make up only twelve percent of this country's population. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among Black women ages 25 to 34. It's one thing to read statistics and another to know people with the disease. Hydeia and I met 12 years ago and have since become best friends. HIV/AIDS is never far from my mind because she and another close friend of mine are living with the infection. They're both talented, intelligent, young African Americans who have never been sexually promiscuous nor used intravenous drugs. You would never know by looking at them that a potentially deadly virus lurks in their bloodstream. But it does. Thankfully, they're each getting medical care that keeps them healthy. They live their lives, have fun, pursue their dreams, have relationships and are careful to not pass on the virus to anyone else. They're proof that HIV/AIDS doesn't have to be a death sentence, if you know your status. It's not shocking that HIV/AIDS has impacted my life and people I love. This disease is the worst health crisis in modern history. Negative or positive, we're all living with AIDS; it's part of our world. Chances are you know someone who has the disease though they might not have told you. There is a good possibility they don't even know themselves, because one out of every five people who is infected doesn't know it. Too often people only find out once they are dangerously ill, but it doesn't have to be that way. AIDS is a disease that can be prevented and treated. Free HIV testing is widely available. We all can take simple actions that can save lives: our own lives; the lives of people we love; and those of human beings far away. Most of my life I've volunteered with Artists for a New South Africa, a nonprofit organization working in the U.S. and South Africa to combat HIV/AIDS, assist children orphaned by the disease, educate and empower youth, and build bonds between our nations through arts, culture and our shared pursuit of social justice. I've gone into classrooms, conducted seminars on HIV/AIDS, taken part in press conferences, recorded public service announcements, raised money, and spoken to thousands of young people in the United States, Botswana, Swaziland, and South Africa in an effort to empower them to join the fight against HIV/AIDS. Regardless of the country, what frustrates me most is the lack of informative dialogue within our community, churches, homes and schools. That very silence is killing us but that silence can be broken if we speak out and take action. We each have the power to help stop AIDS and stay healthy by knowing our HIV status. This is my World AIDS Day commitment: I'm asking everyone I know and everyone who reads this column to join me in getting a confidential HIV test before the end of the year. It's quick and free and it could save our lives. Go alone or make it an event. Grab your girlfriends, sisters, brothers, parents, children, or co-workers. Ask everyone you know to get tested, even if they've been tested before. To find a clinic near you, visit www.hivtest.org. I've never known a world that was free of HIV/AIDS. When the generation to come turns to me and asks, "What were you doing while HIV/AIDS was ravaging our world?" I want to be able to respond, "I helped to fight the pandemic. I did my part." Please join me. Together we can make a difference. Together we can stop AIDS. Jurnee Smollett currently stars in the CBS series, "The Defenders" and as a regular on "Friday Night Lights," now in its final season on DirecTV. She is an active board member of Artists for a New South Africa www.ansafrica.org.
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