Appalachian State University's Response to HIV/AIDS

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During the mid-1980s, the University of North Carolina System’s awareness of HIV/AIDS heightened. The state of North Carolina ranked twenty-first in the nation for reported AIDS cases, with 193 diagnosed AIDS cases by 1986. Although North Carolina’s AIDS rate was statistically low, UNC System President Bill Friday responded by requiring each of the sixteen campuses to develop an AIDS policy to address both medical concerns and discrimination that year. Chancellor Thomas charged the ASU AIDS Task Force to investigate the issue. Within his memorandum discussing the AIDS Task Force, Thomas also stated that persons infected with HIV would not be excluded from campus activities, as the state law considered people with AIDS to be disabled. The advisory board, co-chaired by Student Health Director Dr. Evan Ashby and Assistant Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs Barbara Daye, established an educational program. It sponsored a buddy program and speakers to discuss transmission and prevention of the virus as well as living with HIV. The Task Force also received heavy coverage in the college’s school newspaper, The Appalachian, with educational pieces about transmission, prevention, and incidence rates.

Although Appalachian counties have never had high HIV incidence rates, Appalachian students come from diverse communities where the virus is far more prevalent, and they bring their concerns with them to campus. Many students, particularly gay students, socialized in urban-based bars. From 1985 to May 1987, the Watauga County Health Department conducted 98 HIV antibody tests, all with negative results. The county’s first reported AIDS case was an ill native returning home in 1987. By 1989, the administration had become aware of one HIV+ student, who dropped out of school shortly afterwards.

Most likely, a larger number of infected campus members existed than Watauga County statistics imply. Many individuals do not get tests. From the 1980s to the mid-1990s, North Carolina allowed anonymous HIV antibody testing, meaning that documentation of the state’s infection rate was necessarily incomplete. Only test results linked to individuals’ names and addresses can be used to determine the number of seropositive results. HIV+ students taking local confidential tests, or tests with names provided, may be listed under their home addresses rather than their school addresses. Finally, notifying the campus’ health center of their status was left to the students’ discretion. The students’ tendency to use anonymous tests and be reported in their hometowns may explain why only 20 cases of HIV have been cumulatively reported for Watauga County through 2005.

Campus lore of alumni also indicate a larger infection rate than reported. Late 1980s-to-early-1990-era students remember friends’ receiving HIV positive results, and one recalls personally knowing about a dozen HIV+ gay students. A Student Development employee worked with HIV+ students to omit their seropositive status from the official paperwork when they withdrew from school, but according to former students, many HIV+ students remained in school. Evidence for a higher than previously acknowledged presence of HIV+ students on campus also comes from a campus physician who worked with the now defunct local HIV/AIDS support group. In 1991, an Appalachian physician was quoted stating, “We probably have about 20-25 students here (at Appalachian) that are HIV+.” She remembers a number of students attending the community-based support group. Also, a professor died from complications related to AIDS in 1991 and many former students have died of AIDS-related illnesses as well. First-hand accounts illustrate how deeply HIV/AIDS affected the Appalachian Family despite Watauga County’s low case rate.