June 1981, a rare pneumonia diagnosed in five Los Angeles gay men was reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These were the first documented cases of what would later become known as AIDS.
On Friday, January 14, Anderson Cooper 360 (AC360) aired Hope Survives: 30 Years of AIDS. The show featured an interesting mix of celebrities and prominent figures who are active within the HIV/AIDS community. Elton John spoke at length about his influential organization, the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Phill Wilson, Founder and Executive Director of the Black AIDS Institute and co-founder of Greater Than AIDS, discussed the impact of HIV/AIDS within communities of color. Mo'nique, Maya Angelou, Margaret Cho and Susan Sarandon also contributed their thoughts and feelings. It was quite the party.
There are plenty of reasons to stop and take notice of this important milestone. HIV/AIDS is now considered to be a chronic illness. People are living long, vibrant, healthy lives with HIV. I have worked with people who are 10-, 15-, 20-, 25-year survivors. For a variety of reasons, long-term HIV survivors beat the odds that were set for them at the height of the epidemic back in the mid 1980s and early 1990s. Now those who are diagnosed are not given a poor prognosis. They are not expected to only live a few years and suffer in poor health. With guidance and support, a person with HIV can live a full life. This is a beautiful accomplishment.
At the same time, there is still a ton of work to be done.
Stigma, discrimination, myths & misinformation, and funding cuts are among a few of the major obstacles the HIV/AIDS community is faced with. Even more disheartening is that HIV continues to spread at rapid rates. Despite varying prevention efforts and educational campaigns, HIV has not been contained. Women, young men who have sex with men, and black Americans continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. On the AC360 special, the panel did a good job of exploring these issues with candor and honesty.
Not to be left out of acknowledging this historic anniversary, the always vocal and brutally honest Larry Kramer has made his opinion known. In a piece written for CNN.com, Kramer pours out his heart and soul. He declares AIDS to be a plague that was "allowed to happen." He speaks of the continued hatred toward those who are most affected by AIDS and how this hatred still fuels the overall response -- or lack thereof -- from the powers that be who are responsible for gaining control over this insidious virus. His words are powerful and speak to this strong need for increased awareness, advocacy and change.
Woven throughout the AC360 piece was the intense sense of hope. This was highlighted beautifully by Jeanne White-Ginder, the mother of Ryan White who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 at age 13. He was a hemophiliac and had received a blood transfusion with blood containing HIV and was subsequently banned from attending his school. He died five years later. His story (finally) prompted government and health officials to begin looking more closely at how AIDS is transmitted. It became clear that AIDS was not GRID (Gay Related Immune Disease). What followed was the discovery of HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS. Ryan White became a world-wide face of this epidemic. Speaking on AC360, White-Ginder became the face of hope. Hope to all those living with HIV that they will continue to be healthy, strong and live even longer lives. Hope that we can overcome this devastating disease.
It is this hope that we must hold on to. Without hope, the future of HIV/AIDS will no doubt be worse than the past. Working together, we can continue to raise awareness, dispel myths, fight injustices, and ensure that we do not lapse back into the silence that plagued the epidemic early on. To paraphrase the title of the AC360 special: Hope has and will survive.
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