Since 1981, AIDS has caused some of the most heart-wrenching moments for our society. Unlike some diseases that snatch life in an instant, AIDS causes our loved ones’ bodies to deteriorate slowly, finally reducing them to memories. Elements of bigotry, blame and ostracism plagued the disease and people living with it from the beginning, but AIDS is an integral part of our society today. The disease currently affects around 1.1 million people in the United States and an estimated 33.3 million people worldwide.
It has now been 30 years since the first AIDS cases, and this year’s World AIDS Day raises the question: “Out of all the diseases on the earth, why is AIDS special?” AIDS is a rare disease because it permeates through all lives: rich or poor, homosexual or heterosexual, black or white. It exists in South African villages and American suburbs. At our best, we have fought AIDS together. At our worst, we have ignored the plight of those afflicted. Most of the work has been done by activists, while the rest of the world sympathized but stood back.
Frankly, AIDS has generated more advocacy than nearly any other disease. In the early days, it had the star power of actor Rock Hudson, musician Freddie Mercury, and NBA Hall-of-Famer Ervin “Magic” Johnson behind it. In early years the taboo about discussing sex and our lack of understanding with people with alternative lifestyles would have buried the suffering of those infected, were it not for the advocates. Now, we know that the disease is an equal-opportunity infector and the campaign to fight it has drawn in actors, musicians, politicians, as well as everyday people.
The response to AIDS is characterized by strong activism, to overcome social stigmas regarding the disease and secure funding for treatment. From the famous AIDS Memorial Quilt first conceived by gay activist Cleve Jones in 1985 to the RED campaign of the Global Fund today, AIDS has become a fixture in the consciousness of the general public. Even on Yale’s campus, students, no doubt ones just as overcommitted as the rest of us, are pushing the cause forward by founding groups like Student Global Health and AIDS Coalition and events such as AIDS Walk New Haven.
David Carel ’13, a member of SGHAC, was a part of a protest last semester in Massachusetts in favor of increased AIDS funding. He described the scene to me: “Chants of ‘Budget cuts kill, fund global health,’ filled the streets of Cambridge, Mass. … A horde of students gathered outside in ‘HIV Positive — AIDS Budget Cuts Kill’ T-shirts, chanting and waving signs and banners in protest of the millions of lives that will be lost if these budget cuts are passed.”
One might say after all these years that the epidemic is a manageable one and the current focus on the disease is excessive. Science has developed effective antiretroviral drugs to combat the disease and has improved on existing models: AZT and ddI of the past to Abacavir and highly active antiretroviral therapy of the present. However, the main problems are now social, not scientific. Treatment today is only affordable by a privileged few. Those who can afford to buy their own drugs live normal lives, while those who cannot must depend on philanthropists, often dying because they lack access to the drugs. Some countries manufacture cheaper, generic drugs for their citizens, but the majority do not. There are problems looming at the organizational level as well. Last week, the Global Fund announced that it will have to cancel an upcoming funding round due to lack of resources, an unprecedented decision.
Even though media attention and activism for AIDS are very powerful tools, we must be careful not to dilute the importance of the disease by focusing on the wrong aspects. It is important to make sure that we believe in this year’s World AIDS Day slogan, “Getting to Zero”. Despite successes in medicine and preventative methods, we are still far away from an AIDS-free world. On this World AIDS Day, let us all remember the terrible cost of the disease and hope that someday we can truly get to zero.