Thirty years into the HIV epidemic, it is easy to pretend the crisis is over. After all, fewer people are dying. There are miracle drugs that breath new life into those who are desperately ill.
So fewer people are being newly infected. Right?
Michigan’s epidemic continues, people are dying from AIDS still, and the medications sometimes work, but have horrible side effects and the virus itself can develop resistance to them if they are not taken properly. Why haven’t we heard more about the epidemic?
Because some in the gay community believe our own rhetoric that the epidemic is no longer a gay disease. Some believed that as infection rates increased among heterosexuals that we could let down our guard. But we were wrong. Over 50 percent of new HIV infections are in men who have sex with men in Michigan. That is an unacceptable number of new infections for any community.
Further exasperating efforts to stem the tide of new infections in MSMs, the virus is spreading most quickly among some of the most vulnerable and least resourced of us. Young men of color who have sex with men – many of them in the age group of 13-24 – are more likely to have little access to economic or social service resources. As infection rates spiral out of control in this community, there is little in the way to stop new infections. A program that was in the way of rising infections was lost this fall – REC Boyz – due to lack of federal funds. A simply maddening decision.
Apathy is perhaps the worst enemy in the fight against new infections. The virus has become nothing to fear in the minds of many, and in others, HIV infection and being gay go hand in hand – an inevitable fatalism of failed moralistic prevention programs which have written off men who have sex with men and ceded them as an acceptable loss to the battle.
That is why Between The Lines is launching the PrideSource.com interactive HIV/AIDS portal this month. We believe that you are either part of the problem or part of the solution, and we stand squarely on the side of solutions.
The continuing epidemic is a crisis. In part it is a crisis of communication.
A Kaiser Family Foundation study released in June 2011 found that while the epidemic has been around since 1981, the public’s understanding of how the virus is spread remains poor. Of the respondents in the study, 25 percent thought one could get HIV by sharing a drinking glass with some one with HIV, 45 percent say they would be uncomfortable having their food prepared by someone who is HIV positive, 36 percent with having an HIV positive roommate, 29 percent having their child in a classroom with an HIV positive teacher, and 18 percent working with someone with HIV.
The problem of ignorance is linked to another reality: where people get their information on the virus.
“Six in ten Americans say most of what they know about HIV/AIDS comes from the media, putting it ahead of other sources like school, their doctors, friends and family, and the church,” the report says. It found that mainstream media coverage of HIV is often shallow and reinforces stereotypes. Culturally sensitive prevention messages are rare, and the number of stories that deal with HIV related issues is disproportionately low compared to the severity of the epidemic.
“Media is the top information source on HIV across racial/ethnic groups and for younger and older adults alike. Substantial shares of the public, and much larger shares among blacks and Latinos, say they’d like to have more information on a variety of HIV related topics, including how to prevent the spread of HIV, how to know whether to get tested and where to do so, and how to talk with children, partners, and doctors about the disease.”
Pridesource.com is launching this HIV portal in order to help address these stunning numbers and provide accurate, current information about the epidemic in Michigan. Together, we can, as Secretary of State Clinton said in November, fulfill the dream of an AIDS-free world. But it will take all of us to get there, and we are stepping up to the plate. What are you doing?
Kaiser Family Foundation report: http://thinkprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/HIV-AIDS-Public-Opinion.pdf