'Worst day of my life': SJ community unites for World AIDS Day, remembering those who have died

The San Jose City Hall rotunda turned red as a signal of support for those united in the fight against the disease.
SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- In the South Bay, there was a show of support for people living with HIV and those who have died from AIDS. Local organizations, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department and the City of San Jose organized a candlelight vigil which marked the 33rd World AIDS Day.

On Wednesday, the San Jose City Hall rotunda turned red for the commemoration. Outside, dim red lights signaled support for those united in the fight against the disease.

"We actually have all of the tools we need scientifically to never see another new case of HIV, and to make sure that everyone with HIV lives full, healthy lives," County Assistant Health Officer and STD HIV Controller Dr. Sarah Rudman said.

She added, now it's about making sure everyone has access to those resources.

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San Jose Councilwoman Pam Foley spoke during the ceremony. Foley shared why she is so committed to the mission.

She said her brother died in 1996, shortly after he was diagnosed with AIDS.

"It was the worst day of my life when he passed away," Councilwoman Foley said. "I actually was here. I heard him take his last breath over the phone. I was not there in person. I didn't know how sick he was."

However, Foley said she remembers he was treated horribly, as he suffered.

"It sort of was the impetus for me to make sure that no one else is treated that way, who had been affected by AIDS, HIV," she added.

Foley said World AIDS Day events help to educate others as the fight against the disease is far from over.

"It's devastating to the communities. It's devastating to the family members to lose anyone," she told ABC7 News. "We have a pandemic that we're in the middle of right now, but that one is just as devastating and we ought not to forget about it."

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In the crowd of dozens was Reya Yeddula, 16.

She's with the county's Youth Advisory Board. Yeddula said young people are paying attention.

"I really think that as the generation- as time goes on- it will be easier to educate more people," she said. "And I guess, reduce the stigma."

Yeddula said social media doesn't always paint an accurate picture. So attending educational events offer much needed insight.

"There's so many people that are being affected by HIV and AIDS," she said. "So it's really important for every person to really know the facts and not just what they hear online."

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Reduce the stigma and strengthen community.

Across the county, almost 3,600 people are living with HIV and "thriving" says Dr. Rudman.

Still, she said 115 county residents were newly diagnosed in 2020.

"And that's probably even an underestimate since we worry fewer people got tested last year because of the COVID pandemic," Dr. Rudman added.

However, Dr. Rudman said the county's response to the COVID pandemic was shaped by lessons learned from the on-going HIV fight.

"We have built very fast scientific advancements," she said. "Safe and healthy and effective vaccines that we never would've had without the scaffolding that the HIV pandemic caused us to have to build."

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The White House estimated 1.2-million Americans are living with HIV. On Wednesday, the President announced a plan to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.

Dr. Rudman shared, "One of the things that makes today so different is that we have a medication PrEP, that people without HIV can take that will keep them from getting HIV. And here in Santa Clara County, we can practically guarantee that medication is at zero cost for anyone."

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