In seventh grade, my teacher made me escort a classmate to the nurse’s office after he stabbed himself in the head while twirling a pencil. She was paranoid that he would spread AIDS on doorknobs throughout the school if I didn’t. The problem was that this kid did not have AIDS.
Fast-forwarding to today, numerous organizations and foundations advocate important health-related platforms, including preventing and treating — even, in my teacher’s case, explaining — HIV/AIDS. We often chose to support the causes that have touched our lives the most. In the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, many of the most influential activists had HIV/AIDS themselves, witnessed friends die one after the other or even observed communities decimated by the disease. For HIV/AIDS, this should not be true.
Many people dismiss awareness days. Critics deem them redundant — worth neither effort nor time. The people who show up to events already care, they say.
Awareness days may seem meaningless as a mere collection of numbers on a calendar, but it is a standard to recognize events that have significance in our lives whether they are birthdays, independence days, deaths or religious holidays. Awareness days are an opportunity for a history lesson, a shift in perspective, a moment of gratitude, a time of memorialization and an opportunity to rise above the status quo.
This in mind, it would be an injustice to not acknowledge the impact HIV/AIDS has had on society and the world.
Most college students understand the seriousness of HIV/AIDS, but even the most educated people have misconceptions (my seventh grade teacher was a very smart lady whose class I enjoyed very much). Others have not considered the burden that HIV/AIDS places on individuals and families, both physically and mentally.
Yet the HIV/AIDS epidemic has brought worldwide attention to important global health issues. It has shed light on previously hidden groups of society, including gay people, minorities and intravenous drug users. It has brought attention to sub-Saharan Africa and other underdeveloped regions, and intervention has followed.
The emotion and passion behind the initially stigmatized and mysterious disease has sparked international action that has not been matched. These efforts transformed our views of activism and restored our belief in the power of a cause. The idea that it is infeasible to tackle an epidemic in a low-resource setting has been erased.
HIV/AIDS has changed the landscape surrounding other health concerns, too. Advocates for maternal and child heath must now care about issues like mother-to-child transmission — or the fact that, in Zimbabwe, HIV/AIDS causes one in every four maternal deaths and one in every two maternal deaths in South Africa. Connections between HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, malaria, certain types of cancer and other STDs have also since been identified. HIV/AIDS resources can be used to strengthen health systems. HIV/AIDS drugs have played a key role in the global fight for affordable medication, the evaluation of patent laws and the standardization of treatment protocols.
In addition, the American Foundation for AIDS Research has stated that our responses to the HIV/AIDS pandemic have strengthened government accountability.
The President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), implemented by President George W. Bush in 2003, is just one example. In a three-year period, PEPFAR averted 1.2 million deaths and cut the HIV/AIDS death toll by 10.5 percent in its targeted countries. PEPFAR has become a model for outcome-based initiatives, while the newly launched Global Health Diplomacy Office will give HIV/AIDS an even greater role in international relations moving forward.
By virtue of its magnitude and biological complexity, the HIV virus has infected more than just the immune systems of the 30 million who have died. To not encounter HIV/AIDS on a daily basis is a blessing. For this reason, World AIDS Day is an opportunity for thanksgiving just as much as last Thursday was. However, tomorrow also holds the greater potential to spark a new understanding or enthusiasm. Tomorrow, on Dec. 1, contemplate how one virus can change the workings of society, alter the way we approach policy, raise the standard for activism and add a new dimension to the interconnectedness of the world.
Lindsey Hiebert is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
This column is part of the News’ Friday Forum on World AIDS Day. Click here to continue.