World AIDS Day 2012: A Retrospective

In 1984 I lived in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. On the sleepy, conservative island there wasn’t much to fear. However I found it quite homogenous, having just graduated from college, and I wanted to experience life. I took my first trip to New York City that year. I fell in love! Big city life was meant for me. It was my first exposure to so many things! Art, music and the energy of the city came alive to me. It was as if I took my first breath of life and would die before I took my next gasp.

I remember having read an article in the New York Times about an immunodeficiency virus that was affecting gay young men in New York and how deadly it was. I had first seen it mention in People Magazine. I remember feeling a touch of fear. In spite of this, the ache for the city gnawed away at me until I moved to New York in order to sink my teeth into life and grab all it had for me.

My best friend moved with me and we lived for the night life in the city. We met famous people, from David Lee Roth to Mick Jagger. Everyone sparkled in the night and life was grand! The Palladium had taken the place of Studio 54 and Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were back on top of the world. The club life was fabulous, but along with it came a dark side. There was a sexual revolution going on, but along with it there was a burgeoning awareness of the illness called AIDS that I had heard about when I was sheltered on the Island.

Beautiful young men were becoming sick. Fear was all around us. I remember when my first friend was diagnosed with AIDS; I remember how we didn’t understand what it meant, the implications and how his life would eventually end, leaving us all shattered. Rock Hudson died, Anthony Perkins, Arthur Ashe, later Freddy Mercury and Keith Haring. We noticed condoms in all of the night club bathrooms and ads for safe sex everywhere. It took a very long time to realize this wasn’t just a gay men’s health crisis or something relegated to IV drug users or people far away in Africa.

In April of 2000 there was the first International Conference on AIDS, held in my then hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. The world watched the think-tank and awaited information. The extent of heterosexual transmission was one of the main topics discussed.

“Some experts are skeptical that AIDS will spread as rapidly among heterosexuals as it has among homosexuals. Yet other experts, taking their cues from data emerging from preliminary studies from Africa showing equal sex distribution among males and females, are less sure.”The New York Times

Immediately after the conference, the World Health Organization (WHO) organized an international meeting to consider the AIDS epidemic and to initiate concerted worldwide action. The US developed a presidential AIDS advisory panel. There were debates as to whether you could get it from a shared communion cup, and Ryan White was banned from school. In 2003 a rare case of female-to-female sexual transmission of HIV was reported. Eventually in Europe the numbers of women infected was rapidly catching up with the men’s.

Countries from all over the world came together and poured money into research. The name AZT became familiar in AIDS treatment. Antiretroviral therapy was refined and eventually a one-pill-a-day regimen was introduced, a cooperative effort between two major pharmaceutical companies that combined three pills to make one treatment. This was the beginning.

In 2011, 2.5 million people were infected with HIV. An estimated 1.7 million people died. That number gave us 700,000 fewer new infections worldwide than ten years before, and 600,000 fewer deaths than in 2005. In 2011 the UN General Assembly vowed to get 15 million HIV-infected people worldwide on the life-saving antiretroviral medications by 2015.

In the past few months I have done volunteer work at a transitional living center in Atlanta for individuals with HIV, where my friend Kevin works. He has lived for 25 years with HIV, managed by his medications. Kevin told me that he considers it his honor to educate his fellow HIV survivors on the importance of staying on their medication and practicing safe sex. In February of 2013, I will be speaking at a conference for individuals with HIV on “Living Authentically, Taking off the Mask.” I am looking forward to bringing a message of love and of hope. There are opportunities all over to reach people with HIV and to offer your support and to help spread awareness.

Today, 30 years later, we celebrate World AIDS Day. The 2012 theme for World AIDS Day is “Working Together for an AIDS-Free Generation”. As the mother of four it is my hope that my children will see an AIDS free generation in their lifetime. There are events planned worldwide to help us commemorate and to stand together. We stand with the world to remember those who have died and to stand with the millions who live with HIV. We recommit ourselves to fighting the spread of the infection, to fighting the stigma of the disease and to end this scourge once and for all.

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