WASHINGTON — When Miss America 2010 talks about HIV and AIDS, it’s not just something she read about in a book or heard in an infomercial. For Caressa Cameron, it’s personal.

At 8, when most girls her age were preoccupied with Barbie dolls and jump rope, she was watching her uncle die from AIDS in Fredericksburg, Va., where he lived with her and her parents during the last six months of his life.

Not long afterward, her parents took in a foster child also living with AIDS.

Consequently, it has long been an important issue for Cameron.

“Since I was 9, I’ve been volunteering with AIDS,” Cameron says.

The Miss America winner, who has made preventing HIV/AIDS her platform during her year-long reign, will be coming to Washington and Howard University for the first international conference on the stigma related to HIV.

Cameron will join doctors, nurses and other health care workers from all over the world; ambassadors and representatives from Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean; elected officials, HIV/AIDS workers and activists and others on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, for the “International Conference on Stigma: The Attitude that Spreads HIV.”

During the free, all-day conference at Howard, Cameron and hundreds of experts and lay persons will seek strategies to eliminate the stigma associated with HIV that keeps those with the disease from seeking proper care and treatment and protecting others from HIV.  

Cameron knows stigma associated with HIV personally. She says that because of her uncle and her parents’ work with HIV, many parents in her neighborhood would not let their children play with her, because they thought if the children touched her toys, they could get HIV.

“The stigma that HIV patients carry is such an important issue in the battle against the spread of the disease,” Cameron said. “That is why I am attending the International Conference on Stigma at Howard University, and I urge everyone else to join me there. Together, we can change this.”

The conference is open to the public.

Cameron, who is working with the National AIDS Fund to stamp out the disease, has been touring the nation talking with young women and others about the importance of prevention. AIDS is the leading cause of death among African-American women ages 25 to 34. Females represent 51 percent of the 15 to 19-year-olds infected with HIV and 65 percent of those teens are African-American.

She recently spoke to young women at Faison Intermediate and Westinghouse High schools in Pittsburgh about the dangers associated with the disease.

Prior to becoming Miss America, Cameron, 22, served as coordinator of Youth Services for the Fighting the AIDS Crisis with Education and Support Project.

Dr. Sohail Rana, an attending pediatrician at Howard University Hospital who has worked closely with hundreds of HIV-infected children, said he is pleased that someone like Miss America will help in the discussion of how HIV-related stigma helps spread the disease.

“It is the cloak of shame, stigma, seclusion, sadness and secrecy that fuels the spread of the disease,” said Rana, who is spearheading the conference. “The shame and stigma of HIV prevents many with infection from getting tested, seeking medical care, taking their medications and disclosing their diagnosis to the loved ones for fear of losing them. This societal burden of stigma associated with HIV is in many ways even more damning than the disease itself, which now can be controlled by medications effectively.”

Rana said he hopes the conference will make stigma a part of the international dialogue on prevention.

“There is much talk about prevention, but almost none about the social phenomenon of HIV-related stigma. And here’s what I and many of my colleagues believe; until we address stigma, it is unlikely that prevention efforts will be successful.”

For more information on the conference or HIV-related stigma, call 202.865.4579 or visit www.whocanyoutell.com.


Macy L. Freeman

Howard University News Service