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Tens Of Thousands Step Off For AIDS Walk New York

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- The AIDS Walk New York stepped off Sunday in Central Park, with 30,000 people walking to raise funds for awareness and treatment.

While the total number of participants fell short of the 45,000 initially expected, organizers said it was a good turnout given the rainy weather.

The walk raised $5.5 million this year, and more online donations are expected from those who didn't make it, CBS 2 reported.

The walk has been held every year since 1986, but organizers and celebrity participants alike emphasized that AIDS is far from a concern of the past.

The event benefits the Gay Men's Health Crisis – the nation's oldest AIDS service organization – as well as 40 other local AIDS service groups that provide food, housing, medical care, counseling and other services to those living with HIV/AIDS – as well as work toward advocacy and prevention.

"It's going to be a great spring morning here in Central Park, as people all over the Tri-State Area come on down to participate in AIDS Walk New York as part of GMHC," said AIDS Walk founder and director Craig Miller.

And while AIDS might not so often mean helplessly watching your good friends fall ill and pass away as it did in the 1980s, organizers and participants emphasized that this does not mean the crisis is over.

"People think that HIV and AIDS is no longer a problem, and that's not true," said Gay Men's Health Crisis chief executive officer Dr. Marjorie Hill. "One in five New Yorkers living with HIV does not know that he or she is HIV positive. We really need people to get tested, to know their status, and if possible to get into care."

In point of fact, CBS 2 reported, an estimated 15,529 people with an AIDS diagnosis died in the U.S. in 2010. In 2011, an estimated 49,273 people were diagnosed with HIV in the United States in 2011, and about 32,052 were diagnosed with AIDS.

Hill emphasized that a lot has changed since HIV was first identified in 1981, but there are still many hurdles to overcome.

"When we were founded 31 years ago, there was no hope. There was no vaccine. There was nothing really that could be done other than to advocate that people be treated decently," she told CBS 2's Elise Finch. "Today, medications are providing life-saving changes in individuals' lives, but individuals living with HIV still have to worry about discrimination; still have to worry about family members not understanding the challenges of HIV, or co-workers not understanding."

Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Bebe Neuwirth likewise said the message needs to be emphasized that AIDS is not over.

"AIDS is still here, and it affects all of us," Neuwirth told Finch. "We need more AIDS education. We need to let people know that it still exists. It's still lethal. We don't know how to cure it. And personal to me, I've lost so many friends to AIDS and I have so many friends who are still suffering with it, and being close to it in my life just revs me up to go tell people about it and don't forget."

Numerous corporations and other organizations put together teams to walk and raise funds at the event. Over 230 employees of Bristol -Myers Squibb were out walking on Sunday.

"It's important for us to continue investing in the disease areas that we work in," said Thomas Gibbs of Bristol-Myers Squibb. "With BMS, I think we have very special people that work here, and I think it's about helping our patients prevail over serious diseases, and over the past decade, in addition to contributions from the corporations and individuals have raised about $267,000 over the past four years."

Delta Airlines has been participating in the AIDS Walk for over 16 years, and had 200 participants this year.

"AIDS is a global issue, and we're a global airline," said Gail Grimmett of Delta. "It affects everybody."

In addition to Neuwirth, celebrities appearing for the walk included Megan Hilty of "Smash," Alex Newell of "Glee," Michael Urie of "Buyer and Cellar" and "Ugly Betty," and singer and Grammy nominee Martha Wash – who sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" to the crowd.

Political officials expected to attend included U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), state Reps. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), Gustavo Rivera (D-The Bronx), and Jose M. Serrano (D-Manhattan); Assembly members Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), and Luis Sepulveda (D-The Bronx); City Council members Gale Brewer (D-6th), Robert Jackson (D-7th), Letitia James (Working Families-35th), Jessica Lappin (D-5th), Rosie Mendez (D-2nd), Mark Weprin (D-23rd), and Jumaane Williams (D-45th); and city Human Resources Administration Commissioner Robert Doar.

CBS 2 is a proud sponsor of the AIDS Walk New York.

The event raised at least $5.5-million.

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