I was born in 1989, while the AIDS epidemic in the US was in full force. I’ve never lived in a world where learning about HIV/AIDS wasn’t a part of my school health classes. I know that I’m lucky to have been taught an unbigoted view of how HIV/AIDS could happen to anyone, no matter your sexual orientation or gender. But I’ve had to be caught up on the how we’ve gotten to this point, and I still learn more and more all the time about how much more we need to do in order to end AIDS. And with HIV/ AIDS affecting 33.3 million people on this planet, we have no choice to not care about this.
Last week, on the day before World AIDS Day, I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of “How To Survive A Plague.” It was an incredibly moving documentary that details essentially how a group can mobilize change and be effective activists. The film takes you through a crucial moment in recent history, 1987-1996. It centers around the efforts of the grassroots groups ACT UP and TAG, and the men who were at the forefront of these groups. Hours and hours of raw footage of protests, stand-ins, marches, passionate speeches, and compelling images are all compiled into a very powerful film that brings you back in time. The anger is palpable in every scene, and the fuel for the AIDS activism revolution. It was just so inspiring, saddening, and then uplifting to see all that they accomplished leading up to the 90’s Clinton-era. By the end of 1996, with new drug distributions, the AIDS deaths in New York City decline by 50%. It’s incredible to see the whole journey from a president totally ignoring the epidemic, to AID/HIV plans being a huge part of a presidential campaign, and access to life-saving drugs happening. All of that and more was because of the activists’ efforts, because of grassroots activism, because “Silence = Death.”
Today there is a lot less silence about HIV/AIDS. There are heroes, like Hillary Clinton, who continue to fight just as hard as all of the ACT UP folks did in the 90’s. She has elevated national policy surrounding AIDS/HIV to new levels. On Thursday last week, Hillary unveiled the new PEPFAR Blueprint for an AIDS-Free Generation. The blueprint’s data shows, among many things, how many countries have brought down their death rates and also saved money, incredibly. She began by saying, “Now, make no mistake about it: HIV may well be with us into the future. But the disease that it causes need not be…” She outlined how through PEPFAR in this year alone they have directly supported about 5.1 million people on antiretroviral treatment. This is a 200% increase since 2008! She touched on how the blueprint provides financial plans for how to support treatment and prevention programs worldwide, but that stigma and discrimination are still making this disease harder to fight. Of course, she also addressed the unique concerns of women and girls living with HIV/AIDS:
“…we are focusing even more intently on women and girls, because they are still at higher risk than men of acquiring HIV because of gender inequity and violence. So we are working to ensure that HIV/AIDS programs recognize the particular needs of women and girls, for example, by integrating these efforts with family planning and reproductive health services. We are also working to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, invest in girls’ education, address gender inequality, and take other steps that have been proven to lower their risk of contracting the virus.”
Essentially, we cannot eliminate AIDS without addressing specific gender equality related problems for women and girls.
The PEPFAR Blueprint is an excellent plan that could bring down millions more infections. Obamacare is also crucial for people living with HIV/AIDS in the US, because through it nobody can be denied health care coverage. But we can’t be complacent, because when AIDS programs are in danger of budget cuts, people could lose their lives. What should AIDS activists be doing? Taking their clothes off, like the nude protesters in Boehner’s office? That’s definitely one way to make some noise. But really it doesn’t matter what form the activism takes, as long as voices are heard. And there is hope. As Hillary said at the end of her speech:
“So if we have any doubt about the importance of this work, just think of the joy and that big smile on Florence’s face when she told us about giving birth to her two healthy HIV-negative sons. And think of that same sense of joy rippling out across an entire generation, tens of millions of mothers and fathers whose children will be born free of this disease, who will not know the horror of AIDS. That is the world we are working for, and nothing could be more exciting, more inspiring, more deserving of our dedication than that.”
The end of AIDS could be near, but programs must be fully funded. Make sure you urge the President and Congress to support them.