Monitor Board of Contributors: AIDS awareness still matters
In the early 1980s, I was an undergraduate student at New York University. I remember one day reading a brief article in the New York Times describing a disturbing trend being seen in hospitals across the city: gay men with opportunistic infections and other illnesses most often seen in men of advanced ages with compromised immune systems. The medical community first called the mysterious illness GRID – Gay Related Immune-deficiency Disease. Shortly thereafter, the world came to know AIDS.
It’s been more than 30 years since AIDS became a part of our consciousness and our vocabulary. Since the beginning of the epidemic, nearly 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus, and about 35 million people have died of AIDS. Today, an estimated 34 million people worldwide are living with HIV.
Sub-Saharan Africa remains most severely affected, with nearly one in every 20 adults living with HIV and accounting for 69 percent of the people living with HIV worldwide. In the United States, more than 1.1 million people live with HIV.
Thirty years into the pandemic, there is much for which we can be optimistic:
∎ New HIV infections have fallen 30 percent in the past eight years.
∎ AIDS-related deaths have dropped by nearly 20 percent in the past five years.
∎ The total number of people living with HIV is stabilizing, not increasing.
∎ HIV transmission to babies from infected mothers in Africa dropped 24 percent in the past several years.
And yet, much of the news remains bleak:
∎ Millions of AIDS orphans struggle to survive in impoverished countries with few resources to care for them.
∎ In Eastern Europe, the number of infections and deaths has increased sharply.
∎ While 20 million people undergo treatment worldwide, 10 million others are waiting for treatment.
∎ AIDS researchers do not expect to develop an HIV vaccine for at least another 10 to 12 years.
Gay men everywhere have higher rates of HIV than in the general population. It is estimated that the HIV rate in gay men is eight times that of the general population in low-income countries and 23 times the general-population rate in high-income countries. Researchers and medical providers suggest that reducing the rate of HIV infection in gay men remains especially difficult in many parts of the world. A gay man living in a country in which homosexuality is stigmatized or even criminalized is reluctant to disclose his sexual orientation to his doctor and other health care providers. When he does disclose, he is often refused medical care for his HIV infection.
World AIDS Day began in 1988 and is held on Dec. 1 each year. According to the World AIDS Day website, it “is an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, show their support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate people who have died.”
We know that scientific advances have been made in HIV treatment, and that the United States and most other Western countries have laws to protect people living with HIV. The U.S. government even maintains a website dedicate to AIDS awareness (aids.gov). Furthermore, research continues across the world, and we understand so much more about the condition today than we did even just a few years ago. For many, HIV has become a chronic condition, no longer a life-ending one.
But despite all the positives, so many people still do not know how to protect themselves and others from HIV, and stigma and discrimination remain an everyday reality for many people living with HIV. World AIDS Day is important as it reminds us that HIV has not gone away – there is still a vital need to raise money, increase awareness, fight prejudice and improve education.
Since 2010, the Greater Concord Interfaith Council has held an annual World AIDS Day Service of Prayer, Hope, and Remembrance. This year’s service will be held on World AIDS Day, tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. at St. Paul’s Church, 21 Centre St. We’ll offer prayers of hope for those living with HIV and prayers of remembrance for those who have died of AIDS. Dr. Gary Sobelson will give the main address; we’ll hear music from the New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus and from Cantor Shira Nafshi. A portion of the Names Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt will be on display.
Please join us, as we recommit ourselves to work “until there’s a cure.”
(Robin Nafshi of Concord is the rabbi at Temple Beth Jacob.)