By Zach Hyder, Chief Marketing Officer
I remember the first time I heard the term “AIDS.” It was in Ms. Fisher’s second grade class during a game of tag. A kid shouted that one of our friends was “it” because he had AIDS. We all had to run away so we didn’t get it.
Of course, none of us knew what AIDS was. We were too young to know what was happening around the country as thousands began to die from a virus few adults even understood.
For most of my life, HIV has remained a distant, irrelevant issue. Even in my late 20s living in Washington, D.C., I never knew anyone who had AIDS or was HIV positive — at least no one who was open about it. I’d read how people were surviving with HIV, not dying from AIDS. Yet, HIV was an epidemic in the district — and still is. One in 20 residents are infected with HIV. But I really didn’t see it — it wasn’t visible to me in my daily life.
It has been 30 years since AIDS entered our national lexicon. In three decades, 15 million people have died from the disease. Today, 33 million people globally are living with HIV/AIDS. Infection rates have dropped but are now stagnant as we’ve grown apathetic with effective cocktails that offer treatment, but no clear route to a cure. Public education efforts are being gutted — held up as part of “tough decisions” for states suffering from budget crises. AIDS, after all, isn’t what it used to be. The crisis has passed. Hasn’t it?
For the last several years, our Portland staff has supported the efforts of the Cascade AIDS Project (CAP) by taking part in AIDS Walk PDX. Each year, this one event helps raise nearly half a million dollars to test, treat, counsel, support, feed and house Oregonians infected and affected by HIV. This last Sunday, we joined 10,000 walkers in the streets of downtown Portland to show our support — and remind people that AIDS is still alive in our community.
Last month while on vacation in Colorado, I mentioned our work on HIV/AIDS campaigns and the AIDS Walk to a friend. “The whole AIDS thing is over now that there are drugs,” he said. I was reminded of that kid in second grade — the one who flung “AIDS” out as if it were cooties, something to run away from. Knowing that someone in the United States is infected with HIV every 9.5 seconds, it was hard to hear.
Each year as we march the streets of Portland, the realities of today’s fight against HIV/AIDS become more clear. HIV is still here. People still die from AIDS — many from lack of access to treatment. It may be hard for the advocacy community to hear it, but the narrative about HIV is shifting. Gone are the days when quilts and vigils carry the immediacy of a disease that scared people enough to get tested and practice safe sex. Our national conversation about HIV is evolving from one of sadness and crisis to one of measured progress toward living a normal life.
So why does HIV still matter? It may help to visualize the stacks of pills HIV positive individuals take daily. Not just their daily cocktail, but the cabinet of drugs that help with everything from nausea to nerve damage — side effects of these life-saving miracle drugs. It may also be worth calculating the total cost of living with HIV. The most recent estimates, calculated by research teams from Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Harvard and Boston University, project that over a lifetime of battling this “manageable” disease, someone who is positive will need $621,000 dollars to cover the cost of treating and managing HIV. Treatment will extend his or her life by just 25 years.
So, yes, HIV still matters. It matters to your friends who are living with the virus — but aren’t telling you for fear of judgment. It matters to the rising population of homeless teens in Portland who are being infected through drug use and prostitution. It matters to the parents whose son or daughter recently said, “I’m HIV positive” — and who never thought it would happen to them. Not to their family. Not in their community.
If you’ve read this far and are still thinking that HIV probably doesn’t really matter — not that much — I’m sure that you’ve recently been tested, right? You know for certain your status and the status of your partner or spouse. And if you don’t, it’s because getting infected with HIV would never happen. Not to you. Right?
Tag. You’re it.
For more information on where you can get an HIV test, visit cascadeaids.org or call (800) 777-2437.