AIDS does not take a vacation.
A worldwide pandemic cannot be treated with a magic pill one day a year, and a gay newspaper can’t ignore the fact that HIV is a disease that has ravaged the LGBT community.
AIDS-related sickness in the United States has decreased dramatically since the development of antiretroviral drugs in the mid-1990s. Still, HIV infection and AIDS remain among the nation’s leading causes of death. What has increased is AIDS-related apathy, with no one wanting to effectively deal with an illness impacting so many. You can put blinders on, but that does not mean the rain isn’t falling.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 48,100 new infections in the U.S. in 2009. Thirty years into the virus in an educated country with awareness programs everywhere, and still, nearly 50,000 new cases. But hey, America is Marlboro country. We don’t pay attention. We don’t listen. We don’t hear. We walk through the valley of death without condoms or a conscience. We think with the wrong head.
HIV has a disproportionate impact on certain populations. Though Blacks and Latinos make up about 27 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 62 percent of new HIV infections. Women – particularly women of color – make up an increasingly larger share of positive people. The CDC has told us that black women accounted for 65 percent of new AIDS cases among women in 2007.
Gay and bisexual men are also at high risk for HIV. They accounted for 53 percent of new HIV infections as recently as 2006, and are the only group for whom new infections are rising. It takes time to compile all these stats, but we do know this. There is no shortage of clients at Broward House, Care Resources, or the AIDS Health Care Foundation. There are still newly diagnosed cases walking into the Pride Center daily, seeking counseling and compassion. You may not realize it knocking down a Margarita poolside on a Sunday at the Royal Palms, but South Florida is still ground zero.
So how do we stir people from apathy? It takes more than speeches on Dec. 1, and a Wanda Sykes concert at the Broward Center. It takes the spirit and courage to remind us HIV is not a once-a-year-disease. It takes annual SMART Rides and AIDS Walks and Out of the Closet testing vans available for Pridefests. It takes you being smarter at night so you are not kicking yourself in the morning.
Reaching communities hardest hit by the virus, you have to credit the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. AHF has been a trendsetter in provocative, thoughtful, and memorable advertising that promotes condom use, open dialogue about sexual health, and getting tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). There is a reason they have two full-page advertisements in SFGN every single week, bus benches on every corner and county buses plastered and wrapped with their logo. They are trying to tell you something. Be alert, be aware, and be tested.
AHF has the courage to confront global AIDS awareness with stark and realistic ads. They are intolerant of waiting lists for ADAP patients, so they criticized an LGBT-friendly President Obama in one ad. They are unwilling to accept greed, so in another ad they challenge Gilead CEO John Martin, accusing him of jacking up drug prices to line his pockets. Consider an uninsured HIV patient that needs Stribild. Do you have an extra $28,500 a year lying around? That is 37 percent more than existing drug regimens.
Gutsy advertisements from AHF have populated major cities throughout the United States and around the world. In Uganda, AHF launched an HIV campaign that directly addressed sexual infidelity, stirring Kampala controversy of national magnitude. The billboards included images of broken hearts and slogans like, "Cheating? Use a condom. Cheated on? Get Tested." It was a frank approach that was so discomforting in Uganda that its own AIDS commission ordered them removed, claiming they contradicted the government's messages of fidelity. But for four months, people were buzzing.
Now, AHF has premiered its first ever ad campaign in the central-African country of Rwanda in participation with the country’s Ministry of Health. The simple ad features a smiling young woman sitting on a bed with the hopeful inquiry, “A Free HIV Test Saved My Life – And You?”
The image has received positive feedback from the public via AHF’s social media platforms, including comments about the message’s friendly, normalizing delivery being effective in encouraging testing in a region where HIV stigma and discrimination is still strong enough to deter many from learning their status.
In Rwanda – where AHF supports six HIV/AIDS treatment centers that provide free testing, treatment, and care – approximately three percent of the country’s total population is living with HIV/AIDS, according to the UN. AHF is currently providing access to care to 6,951 individuals in Rwanda.
As I said, Rwanda and Uganda are a far way from Gay Days and a Pridefest in South Florida. But whether your community is flush with iPhones and gay beaches, or on parched deserts in Africa, AIDS is real, and the consequences are not pleasant.
So yes, I know the first week of June it is not World AIDS Day, and I know many of you would prefer not to read more about AIDS, which explains why this week’s SFGN has a special issue all about it.
Welcome to the reality you have tried to escape from.
Now go get tested and don’t forget to play safe.