AIDS Walk Miami Celebrates 25 Years of Activism

by Christiana Lilly
Saturday Apr 20, 2013

This weekend marks a special anniversary in the fight against AIDS in Miami.

For the last 25 years, AIDS Walk Miami has raised money for Care Resource, the oldest and largest HIV/AIDS community organization in the region. The walk on April 28 in Miami Beach is a celebration of a legacy of activism and community partnership.

"We have a tradition of running HIV awareness and fundraising campaigns since the very beginning of the epidemic," said Joe DePiro, marketing and public relations manager at Care Resource.

Each year, the walk draws about 2,500 people from across the country and some even from outside the U.S. This year, the 3.1-mile walk starting at the Miami Beach Convention Center will include "flamingoes" that participants can pick up along the way to later use in a raffle. After the walk, there will be music by MTV Latin America, vendors and food at the Botanical Gardens.

Most importantly, there will be rapid HIV testing sites where one can find out their status in a private setting in less than 30 minutes.

With Miami and Fort Lauderdale ranking as the top two cities in the nation for new HIV infections per capital, the walk is especially important. With the AIDS epidemic seeming to be a problem from another generation as well as medical advancements making AIDS a lifelong illness rather than a death sentence, people have become lax.

However, an AIDS patient could spend up to $600,000 in medical costs in their lifetime.

"The infection rates here are high but there's two things we can do to bring that down and alleviate it, and the first one is everybody needs to know their status - plain and simple," DePiro said. "The second part of it is if you're HIV-positive... get into treatment early. As soon as you find out, get into treatment."

"It will bring the numbers down until a vaccine is found, and hopefully with recent news, we're hoping five years from now we won't have any more AIDS."

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Meet the Grand Marshal: Dr. Robert Gallo

Dr. Robert Gallo is credited as the co-discoverer of the link between HIV and AIDS in 1984, forever changing the lives of AIDS patients worldwide. This year, he will be traveling from Maryland to serve as the AIDS Walk Miami grand marshal.

Gallo's interest in medicine stemmed from his sister's death when he was 6; she was just 12 when she succumbed to leukemia. His goal was to study the disease, which eventually led him on the path to studying AIDS. Even as a doctor, he first heard of the disease ravaging gay men from reading newspapers.

He then heard Dr. James Curran, now the dean of Emory University's Medical School in Georgia, lecture twice on AIDS. The first time didn't resonate with him.

"I heard him lecture again. This time it was clear this was important, it was growing, it was scary, people were really suffering and I believed he was looking at me when he said, 'Where are the virologists?'"

At that time, proposing that AIDS was a virus was groundbreaking. In 1980, Gallo and his colleagues discovered the first real cancer virus, belonging to a family of retroviruses. Later, the group discovered a substance that has the ability to increase T-cell growth. Those infected with AIDS have a dramatic drop in T cells, a type of white blood cell. White blood cells are critical in defending the body from illness.

As their work progressed, the study became a full-time job in the lab. When they finally made the link between HIV and AIDS, Gallo had to be able to prove it. His second contribution to the world of medicine was creating the blood test still used today to identify AIDS.

"Before you had to wait until somebody had AIDS, now it was a few weeks after infection. And the blood test for me was critical for etiology - cause - because it was simple, it was fast, it was safe, it was rapid, it was inexpensive, so it could be done all over the world, and it was. So we got confirmation very quickly and the world accepted... HIV is the cause of AIDS," Gallo said.

Gallo's work went beyond the laboratory as he met some of the biggest names in the gay rights movement, including Martin Delaney, the founder of Project Inform, and Larry Kramer, an LGBT activist and playwright. He would attend meetings and conferences across the country with them throughout the years.

The doctor first met Kramer at a party in a loft at Greenwich Village. He told the doctor he had read that AIDS can't be transmitted through sharing drinks.

"He was drinking a drink and a few minutes later he said, 'Hey this is great, why don't you try it?' So I did, to prove a point," Gallo said.

For 30 years he was the head of the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology at the National Institutes of Health's National Cancer Institute. He also founded the Global Virus Network and the Institute of Human Virology, where he works today.

AIDS Walk Miami Festivities

Walk Pre-Party

April 18 from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. at Haven Lounge, 1237 Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. Dance to tunes from MTV DJ Mauricio Parra while sipping on free drinks. $20 voluntary donation to AIDS Walk Miami.

Kommona Paddle Race

April 20 at 8:30 a.m. at Purdy Docks, 18 Street and Purdy Avenue in Miami Beach. Jump on your paddle board for a race around part of the Venetian Causeway to benefit AIDS Walk Miami. Afterward, festivities at Beer and Burger Joint. Registration $40.

AIDS Walk Miami

April 28 at 8 a.m. at the Miami Beach Convention Center Hall D, 1901 Convention Center Drive in Miami Beach. Registration at 8 a.m., opening ceremonies at 8:30 a.m., 3.1-mile walk at 9 a.m. Registration $25.

Post-Walk Celebration

April 28 from 9:30 a.m. to noon at Miami Beach Botanical Gardens, 2000 Convention Center Drive in Miami Beach. Music by BarrioActivo and Aulden Brown, free massages and drinks, goodies and vendors.

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