TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Awareness and financial support are the two major challenges facing HIV/AIDS advocacy groups in southern Arizona.
Scott Blades, Executive Director of Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network, said more education is the answer at the 33rd International AIDS Candlelight Memorial at Himmel Park in Tucson Sunday night.
TIHAN and the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation organized the annual event with this year's guest speaker being Tim Haver, who was first diagnosed with HIV in 1986.
"I was watching all my friends die, one after another," he said. "And I thought it's just a matter of time until I was gone."
But he's still standing and sharing his story. Haver said he feels blessed to still be alive so he volunteers his time to speak with audiences, organizations and classrooms around southern Arizona.
"Days like today are what brings it home that I'm here to spread the news that HIV has not gone away," said Haver. "It's still a very major threat"
He's found help through various organizations like TIHAN and SAAF in Tucson. Blades said it's good for the community that medical advances have made it so the disease is no longer a death sentence. But support agencies are still in demand.
"The unfortunate reality is we're seeing more folks come to us for support," said Blades.
There are 2,491 people living with HIV/AIDS in Pima County as of 2013, according to the state. More than 700 of them are considered to be "unmet need," which means they have no record of doctor visits, prescriptions or lab tests.
Both Blades and Haver tout the Tucson community for having some of the best options when it comes to medical and emotional care, but they are only worthwhile if they're used.
"That only works if you get tested and know your HIV status," said Blades.
Testing is free and confidential.