December 1, 2009
Posted: 08:40 PM ET
What was once an American crisis is now a national afterthought. But there may be new life in the AIDS movement.
By Kate Dailey
After the first case was reported in 1981, America soon found itself in the middle of an AIDS crisis. For the next several years, the country was on high alert: men and women were dying quickly and painfully. Activists groups like ACT UP made headlines with disruptive and shocking protests demanding better care. TV shows devoted very special episodes to safe sex, and the global health community seemed united in its effort to eradicate AIDS.
But 28 years is a long time to be in crisis mode. And thanks to the 1996 development of the antiviral cocktail, a combination of drugs that largely stemmed the fatal and fast-moving elements of the disease while eliminating many of its highly visible indicators, the feeling of immediate danger that spurred so many people to action is now gone.
"When I was diagnosed, I was told I had a year left and I would have done anything if I thought it would've saved my life," says Regan Hofmann, the editor in chief of POZ magazine, who received her diagnosis in 1996. "But then three months later they said, 'You're going to be OK, you might even have a normal life span'. . . I was no less adamant about wanting to fight HIV/AIDS, but the urgency was gone."
Since that time, free condoms have largely disappeared from bars; red ribbons, once so ubiquitous at awards ceremonies, are rarely seen, and other health issues—from obesity to cancer—have taken up space in the public consciousness.
"In my early days as a board member and earlier, there was a great deal of concern, worry, angst about HIV that has settled into this kind of benign complacency," says Marjorie J. Hill, CEO for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Many people, she says, thinks AIDS can be treated with a pill, and that living with the disease is now similar to living with diabetes or heart disease.
Of course, HIV/AIDS is not nearly under control: it affects 33 million people worldwide, and in America, it's the No. 1 killer for women under 35, according to the MAC AIDS fund. The Centers for Disease Control reports that new infections have not declined in the past decade, and while people under 30 are at the greatest risk, so are those in their 50s and 60s. As patients living with HIV/AIDS get older, more potential side effects of the drug cocktails become apparent, including premature aging and dementia. And while many people think AIDS as a medical condition is no big deal, people are still afraid to confront it. "The stigma against people with HIV is still so strong," says Hofmann, who notes that fear of social consequences has kept many patients silent.
Filed under: Health
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