Lorraine Teel retires Friday after almost 21 years at the helm of the Minnesota AIDS Project. Under Teel's leadership, the Minnesota AIDS Project has 60 staff members and more than 1,000 volunteers working to prevent HIV infection and support those living with HIV.
Teel spoke with MPR's Tom Crann to reflect on her tenure and discuss HIV/AIDS issues in the state.
Tom Crann: Why step away from this work now?
Lorraine Teel: I've been at it for a long period of time, and, frankly, I think it's time for the Minnesota AIDS Project to have a new look, a new focus and some new thinking.
Crann: I was looking at the numbers from the Minnesota Department of Health from 2003 to 2009. The numbers show an uptick in the HIV infection rate from 280 cases per 100,000 people in 2003 to 370 for 100,000 in 2009, the most recent data available. As we sit here in 2011, what do you think is contributing to that uptick?
Teel: I think it's a number of things. I think it's a sense of apathy that this disease is very treatable, a sense of complacency and, frankly, a sense that people could be educated about AIDS once in their life and that message would stick. And we know with all other public health efforts that's not the case. That's why we do smoking prevention 365 days a year or caution people about diet and exercise. And yet when it comes to HIV, there's this mistaken belief that if you heard about it once in your life, you basically have a virtual vaccine.
Crann: Is it also the way that AIDS was in the news in -- let's say, the 1980s when it was hard to not hear about it then -- that it has receded since it is no longer the death sentence that it once was?
Teel: I think certainly the media has really turned away from HIV stories -- particularly HIV as it affects Americans and here in Minnesota as it affects Minnesotans. And, as a result, the public thinks that AIDS is now a disease of those other people who live far away.
Crann: Do you think there has been enough information out there about the methods of HIV transmission?
Teel: I don't think so. I think the methods of transmission for HIV are sexual. And unless we really can speak openly, honestly and in clear terms that the target population -- in the case of HIV, most notably young gay and bisexual men -- understand, we can't educate people about HIV.
Crann: So with those struggles of acceptance comes a resistance to discussing the methods of transmission?
Teel: Yes, absolutely. The methods of transmission require us to speak in very frank terms. Not that long ago we had a president who questioned whether or not he had had sex with a specific intern. And it was dependent on what the meaning of 'is' is, what the meaning of 'sex' is, and we know, as a result, we have young people who today think, for example, that oral sex is not sex. And oral sex carries a very small risk of HIV, but a very large risk for other sexually transmitted diseases as well.
Crann: As you step down from this position as executive director of the Minnesota AIDS Project, what's still left on the 'to do' list?
Teel: I really wish that we could have come a lot further with educating our policymakers -- not only our legislators here in St. Paul, but folks around the state in smaller communities about the risk of HIV and about the very real fact that people with HIV live throughout this state, and the risk of transmission is very real. And frankly, as more people are living with HIV, the larger that risk becomes.
(Interview transcribed by MPR reporter Elizabeth Dunbar.)