Berk: Not just a disease

Remember today.

Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day — a day to remember the 33.4 million people infected by HIV, to remember the 2 million people who died from complications of AIDS last year alone and to remember that HIV has not gone away.

Since 1981, the disease has claimed more than 25 million lives (more than three times the entire population of New York City). Yet, although the statistics are dramatic, numbers cannot express the full weight of the epidemic. AIDS is not merely another infectious disease but rather a social disease with unparalleled cultural impact, the roots of which trace all the way back to the disease’s first recognition.

On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control reported that five young men (all “active homosexuals”) had contracted an extremely rare form of pneumonia. The cause: unknown. This publication marked the beginning of a global public health crisis and did so in a way that would shape the political discourse surrounding the disease for decades to come.

There are few places where HIV and AIDS have not ignited controversy. Conflicts over the nature of the disease, the cause of the disease and the methods it controls have been numerous, intense and diverse. The association with homosexuals only fueled existing prejudice about gay sex and further stigmatized the homosexual demographic.

It took a social movement, led by those affected by the disease, to finally bring AIDS into the spotlight as a universal threat. Underground advocacy groups such as the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power sought to overcome personal stigma, community apathy and government reluctance to fight for direct action against the AIDS crisis.

Self-educated HIV activists (not doctors, politicians or corporations) first highlighted HIV as not just a virus, but also an issue of social justice. They demanded more than anti-retroviral medicines; They required a human rights response to the maltreatment of a vulnerable population. They fought discrimination against AIDS patients who were denied medical treatment, refused basic employment and faced restrictions on international travel. They fought against the extremists labeling HIV as “the gay disease” and claiming that the virus was sent by God to eradicate those living in sin.

Thanks in large part to their efforts, today we have medicine, AIDS research funding and a greater understanding of the disease. We hear of cheap treatments in the developing world, of HIV patients living to an old age and of progressive ideas that bring an end to stigma.

And over the past decade, we’ve seen significant improvements and amazing progress in the treatment of HIV. A new report indicates that new infections have dropped 17 percent over the past eight years. Meanwhile, the number of childhood deaths from AIDS has decreased due to increased access to anti-retroviral drugs.

For those on medication, HIV is no longer a death sentence but a manageable chronic disease, comparable to diabetes. Moreover, for those properly educated, HIV is largely preventable.

But the crisis is not over.

While generic AIDS treatments exist, they are still unavailable to million of patients, both in the United States and abroad. Only 42 percent of the global population in need of life-saving drugs is actually receiving them. That’s the equivalent of treating only five out of 12 residential colleges.

And in the United States the uninsured and underinsured persons in the HIV community face significant barriers to receiving medications.

Moreover, especially in the middle of a financial crisis, organizations that provide services to those affected by the virus often do not have the necessary funds to continue their work. This July, Governor M. Jodi Rell, who presides over the third richest state in the country, attempted to end funding to AIDS Services, Syringe Exchange Programs and Community Services for Persons with AIDS citing budget shortfalls. The U.S. government has flat-lined funding for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has provided billions to combat HIV/AIDS since its inception in 2003. Médecins Sans Frontières warned last month that this retreat “threatens to undermine the dramatic gains made in reducing AIDS-related illness and death in recent years”

In addition, although we have the knowledge to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child, the global majority of expectant mothers still don’t receive the necessary services. As a result, over 400,000 children are newly infected each year. Increasing access to medication is great, but for every three people starting therapy five become infected. Without a biological vaccine, education and prevention programs are the best way to stop the spread of the epidemic, but many communities lack even the most rudimentary programs.

As we commemorate World AIDS Day, our communities, our nations and our school continue to struggle with the devastating impact of the virus. We must celebrate the progress we have achieved and mourn the tragedy of those who fell to the disease. But most importantly, we must remember that there is still much to do.

Justin Berk is a senior in Pierson College.


  • 25th Anniversary at Yale

    See Yale’s contribution to banishing the “AIDS is a gay disease” stigma.

    This story has not previously been told.

    “Twenty-fifth anniversary: Yale Uncovers Heterosexual Connection to AIDS”

    October 2 post and video


  • FailBoat

    AIDS is obviously not an exclusively “gay disease”, but consider the following statistics for the US:

    1 in 4 gay men has HIV/AIDS. Right now. That’s 25% versus the overall male infection rate of 0.038%.

    71% of male American HIV/AIDS cases are constituted by gay men, who make up about 10% of the population. Most female HIV/AIDS cases are constituted by women who’ve had sex with men who’ve had sex with men.

    The transmission rate of HIV from receptive anal sex are 1 in 30. (penetrative anal sex carries 1 in 300 odds). Vaginal penetration carry transmission rates of only 1 in 100,000.

    Yeah, HIV/AIDS is not only a “gay disease”, but it disproportionately effects gay men. Schools and health educators do gay individuals a disservice by not illuminating the increased hazards associated with an MSM lifestyle.

  • An AIDS Epidemiologist

    Failboat’s statistics are simply WRONG.

  • FailStats

    One might even say FailBoat’s statistics are an EPIC FAIL



    As one whose own brother died of AIDS six years ago at age 57, I would be interested in hearing the correct stats. I have been involved in this issue since before HIV was discovered (1982).If there is one thing I am sure of regarding statistics it is that people lie about personal matters like sex. Lies don’t make good stats.


  • FailBoat

    Any AIDS Epidemiologist knows that the truth about MSM transmission of HIV/AIDS is one of the most shameful open secrets in sex education today.


    “To reassess those findings and previous HIV testing behaviors among MSM, CDC analyzed data from five of 17 cities participating in the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance (NHBS) system. This report summarizes preliminary findings from the HIV-testing component of NHBS, which indicated that, of MSM surveyed, 25% were infected with HIV, and 48% of those infected were unaware of their infection. To decrease HIV transmission, MSM should be encouraged to receive an HIV test at least annually, and prevention programs should improve means of reaching persons unaware of their HIV status, especially those in populations disproportionately at risk.”

    “In the 33 states with long-term, confidential name-based HIV reporting, an estimated 19,620 MSM (18,296 MSM and 1,324 MSM who inject drugs) received a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS, accounting for 71% of male adults and adolescents and 53% of all people receiving an HIV/AIDS diagnosis that year.”

    “MSM is the only risk group in the U.S. in which new HIV infections are increasing. While new infections have
    declined among both heterosexuals and injection drug users, the annual number of new HIV infections among MSM
    has been steadily increasing since the early 1990s.”

    “A recent study, conducted in 5 large US cities, found that HIV prevalence among black MSM (46%) was more than twice that among white MSM (21%)”

  • (PK)


    (Note disparity between numbers in in par.4—-PK)

    The term men who have sex with men (MSM) refers to all men who have sex with other men, regardless of how they identify themselves (gay, bisexual, or heterosexual).

    In the United States, HIV and AIDS have had a tremendous impact on MSM. Consider these facts:

    AIDS has been diagnosed for more than half a million MSM. Over 300,000 MSM with AIDS have died since the beginning of the epidemic.

    MSM made up more than two thirds (68%) of all men living with HIV in 2005, even though only about 5% to 7% of men in the United States reported having sex with other men.

    In a 2005 study of 5 large US cities, 46% of African American MSM were HIV-positive.

    Since HIV/AIDS in MSM was first diagnosed 1981, gay and bisexual men have been leaders in dealing with the challenges of the epidemic.

    Gay organizations and activists, through their work, have contributed greatly to many of the guidelines for prevention, treatment, and the care of people living with HIV/AIDS.

    For complex reasons, HIV/AIDS continues to take a high toll on the MSM population. For example, the number of new HIV/AIDS cases among MSM in 2005 was 11% more than the number of cases in 2001.

    It is unclear whether this increase is due to more testing, which results in more diagnoses, or to an increase in the number of HIV infections.

    Whatever the reasons, in 2005, MSM still accounted for about 53% of all new HIV/AIDS cases and 71% of cases in male adults and adolescents.

    Last Modified by CDC Sept. 26, 2009

  • @#5

    “I have been involved in this issue since before HIV was discovered…”

    No doubt…

  • One wonders . . .

    One wonders about # 8.

    In 1981 a young MD at Yale developed a black spot on his leg,kaposi’s sarcoma, which normally affects only very elderly men.

    His death a year later due to a new illness called at that time Immonodeficiency Syndrome led to the creation of an informal group at Yale
    (later named AIDS Information Dissemination Service) to spread information about that new disease which at that time was thought to be transmitted only by same gender male sexual contact.

    In the process of working with that group as a divinity grad I discovered a female prostitute who had transmitted AIDS to her infant, who was born with the disease and who never left the hospital.

    The resulting confuson, panic and acrimony over the possibility that AIDS could be transmitted heterosexually were the result of a 60 Minutes piece televised in February, 1984 on the issue.

    Excerpts can be seen at
    http:// the (Ocotber post entitled “25th anniversary…”

    That my own brother would die of the illness in 2003 which doctors said he had contracted decades before, is a sad irony for those interested in pushing back the boundaries of ignorance about health.

    In retrospect, the idea that AIDS or any microbe could have a sexual preference seems a bias based in animosity and projection if not down right hate and wishful thinking.

    The initial hate-mongering (AIDS is God’s punishment of homosexuals for the sin of their sexual choices) was instantly dispelled by the information that heterosexuals could transmit the disease too.

    Not always, but some times hate loses, even for people who enjoy pointing fingers.