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.