By Winnie Stachelberg, vice president for the HRC Foundation
Those of us who witnessed the emergence of the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s remember the stigma associated with infection and the tragic neglect of those who fell ill. We remember callous politicians who would not even acknowledge the crisis or – when they did – advocated quarantine. We remember those we have lost and we remember the heroes who brought our community together.
For both good and bad, a lot has changed since then. We’ve seen organizations and institutions build and grow – helping to provide care and treatment for those living with the disease. We’ve witnessed breakthroughs in medications allowing people to live long healthy lives. We’ve seen awareness rise but face continued misperceptions and discrimination.
One thing hasn’t changed. Nearly twenty-five years after the first cases of AIDS were detected, we still have no cure – no proven vaccine. We still face 40,000 new infections every year in this country because many people still do not think they are at risk for contracting HIV.
With news of a possible new, more virulent strain in the United States, this is a new era of the epidemic that desperately needs new approaches. We need a redoubled effort to create new prevention strategies, marshal the best research, provide thorough care and treatment and deal with the pandemic on the global level.
While all of the facts are not in, these developments remind us how important prevention is – no matter what kinds of new strains may develop. Whether a new strain materializes or not, we must never lose focus on preventing the spread of any form of HIV.
But for the past 10 years, prevention funding at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t only been stagnant, it’s been declining. Tragically, funding for ideology driven, un-scientific “abstinence-only-until-marriage” programs has increased. Every hour, two young people are newly infected with HIV. Young people need frank and honest information to empower them to protect themselves.
The most recent issue of one of the most popular GLBT magazines had 6 six pages of glossy full-color ads for HIV drugs. There were zero pages of HIV prevention advertising. It’s time for smart, targeted messages to reach people with the unvarnished truth – everyone is at risk of infection and everyone needs to protect themselves.