Joyce Murphy watched her son deteriorate — his curly, blond locks were gone and his charm was slowly eaten away, to be replaced by hollowed, orange skin.
The man with HIV got himself out of bed one morning in early February 2006 and took Joyce’s car to the automotive shop for an oil change. He was always helping others like that, Joyce said.
By mid-February, Lance Murphy, 38, was gone.
“What can one say, from a mother with a broken heart?” Joyce asked as she lit a votive candle for Lance at Unitarian Universalist Congregation Tuesday during its ceremony to recognize those who lost their battle with AIDS.
AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin and Unitarian Universalist Congregation hosted the service — in observance of World AIDS Day.
“We continue to hold this service to show people living with HIV that we’re still working on this for them, we’re still in the fight,” said Cheryl Thiede, senior director of social services for the ARCW’s Eau Claire office.
“We (also want them to) know that we know there is stigma, that we know there are barriers to care, that we know it is a difficult life, and we recognize that, and we’re still here with them.”
About 20 people participated in the ceremony and lit candles for loved ones and friends lost to the illness. Thomas Wik, Jr., of Altoona, lit candles for those who died by suicide or drug addiction to numb the realities of their diagnoses.
“Too many people think HIV is yesterday’s news,” said the Rev. George Stamm, a retired priest who facilitated the lighting portion of the service. “What about all those others, the ones who, for whatever reason, don’t come looking for help?”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 1.2 million people in the United States were living with HIV at the end of 2012, the most recent year the information was available. Of those, about 12.8 percent don’t know they are infected.
“There are absolutely people living in this community with HIV who don’t know it,” said Thiede, noting not knowing that status can put others at risk.
In the U.S., HIV is spread mainly by having sex with someone who has the virus or sharing needles, syringes, rinse water or other equipment used to prepare injection drugs with someone who has HIV, according to the CDC.
If people believe they might be at risk for HIV, the most important action they can take is to get tested, said Thiede, whose organization provides free testing with results in 20 minutes.
“If we all know our status, we can deal with it,” said Bob Tollefson, of Eau Claire, who has lived HIV positive for 24 years and spoke during the ceremony Tuesday.
Diagnosis with HIV isn’t necessarily a death sentence, Thiede said. “With the right kind of care, we can prevent or delay someone from moving to full-blown AIDS status.”
That said, some who develop AIDS will lose their lives. Over the past decade, Wisconsin has been averaging 100 AIDS-related deaths annually statewide, she said.
“My generation was hit hard,” said Tollefson, 65. “Most of my friends are dead.”
The first cases of HIV infection in Wisconsin were recorded in 1982, according to the state Department of Health Services. Through 2014, 266 new cases have been diagnosed in west-central Wisconsin, including 79 in Eau Claire County; 19, Dunn County; and 24, Chippewa County.
In 2014, 226 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in Wisconsin, according to information released by the Eau Claire City-County Health Department. Of those cases:
• 78 percent were attributed to men who have sex with men, including those who also injected drugs.
• 15 percent were attributed to high-risk heterosexual contact.
• 7 percent were attributed to injection drug use.
To reduce the risk of contracting HIV through sexual contact, use condoms correctly every time you have vaginal, oral or anal sex, the Health Department advises. If you inject drugs, use only sterile injection equipment and never share equipment with others.
“It’s a heavy topic,” Tollefson said. “We’re so lucky to have medication.”