It takes strong, valiant, and courageous men and women to begin a movement. A movement develops from the hearts and minds of many individuals with a common goal. The motivations and past experiences that bring each thought or social leader forward have a plethora of histories. The crusade to end the damage that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has wrought on the fabric of humanity is no different. Countless physicians, such as Drs. Michael Weisman and Robert Gallo, and scientific researchers, such as Dr. Mathilde Grimm, fought to overcome the generalized social terror of acquiring the infection at the beginning of the recognized epidemic and became as ingrained in the fight against it as community advocates like Larry Kramer, Elizabeth Glaser, and Zackie Achmat.
HIV and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) rapidly came to stand for the Earth's most down-trodden, hapless, and hopeless. This retrovirus challenged the spirit, soul, and compassion of society. The spirit wanted with the overwhelming odds of men and women rapidly dying in the prime of their lives. The soul withered when all available medical avenues had been exhausted with little improvement or hope. And compassion for the fellow man became rare in the face of these realities as we better understood the causal factors to infection.
We have all borne witness to the power of focused scientific achievement coupled with rapid social movement in this battle. The defiant stand by diverse individuals despite personal hardships forged a social and scientific movement to defeat the deadliest disease of the 20th century. This virus has united a wide array of scientific and medical disciplines, such as efforts to fight tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections, as well as constituents in social movements. The collaboration of actors on this stage is unprecedented: oncologists have partnered with gastroenterologists who are working with trauma behaviorists who collaborate with feminists teaming with sexologists who, in turn, consort with substance abuse specialists. Each of these persons is repeatedly challenged to expand their reach and reflect on their motivations for the work that they do.
In the past three decades these unexpected cooperatives have made bold strides toward reducing the impact of the virus on all of mankind. It would be short-sighted to believe that each forward step was not met with resistance and occasional retreat. For instance, consistent efforts to reduce access to clean syringes for individuals already suffering from substance addictions is but one example of the continued struggle to defeat HIV/AIDS and comorbid conditions like hepatitis C. Nonetheless, progress has been made in spite of ourselves. Improved health education, increased resources, and the overcoming of phobias are just a few advances that have allowed HIV to become a manageable disease.
The tool chest to fight HIV is expanding at a faster rate today than it has in almost 20 years. A renewed focus has been aimed domestically and internationally at the demographics most affected by HIV/AIDS. Poverty and housing, which have been closely affiliated with newer HIV infections, are being addressed in real time to combat HIV. The global battle to fight a virus that knows no boundaries has been strengthened through stigma reduction for vulnerable populations and health care access augmentation for all.
Drug regimens have been developed that help a person who is diagnosed early live over 90 percent of their expected life span. This is in addition to drugs being approved that, when used as prescribed, prevent HIV infection in the first place. Stronger vaccines are being developed each and every day, in addition to antiretroviral medication focused on stopping the replication of the most hard-to-reach viral particles in the body. Meanwhile, a focus is being levied to improve mental health support to ensure that each person makes better choices and adheres to life-sustaining treatments.
With all the advancements in progressing science and reducing social ills, the end game for HIV has been declared by leaders within the movement and beyond. But as with any progressive movement, actualizing the final steps of eradication takes as much work as beginning it. New faces must emerge and show the same resolve to challenge the status quo and assert that the same is not good enough. A new paradigm must be developed to look at the current landscape of HIV and take the final steps to wipe it out. Health systems must be strengthened to improve delivery to all persons and populations, irrespective of their perceived status or value to society as a whole. Each era is ultimately judged by how the least able are treated. AIDS has and will always be a global epidemic preying on those with the fewest resources.
Let's end this with the same force and unconventionality needed to begin this fight. AIDS is still a death sentence for the vast majority of infected individuals. Each country's most vulnerable demographic is at the highest risk of infection. Our resolve must be strong and unyielding to overcome the deserving complacency and occasional smugness at the strides already made by those persons, groups, organizations, and nations in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Let's end this to honor the legacy of the millions of people who we know have died of complications from HIV/AIDS. Let's end this for the families who silently suffered before the world had a real understanding of what it was facing. Let's end this so that the second generation of HIV/AIDS clinicians, public health professionals, activists, and movement leaders will also be the last. Let's end this now.
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