World AIDS Day has always been bittersweet for me. On the one hand, it's a day when much of the media focuses on a global pandemic that desperately needs attention. On the other hand, it's become the only day when much of that same media shines a light on the issue even as millions more have become infected with HIV worldwide and when we are at critical juncture where we could see the end of AIDS if efforts - and media attention - are brought to bear.
I've known editors and reporters to hold important stories about HIV, even from as far back as August, to publish on December 1. This has actually influenced researchers and health authorities to postpone important announcements or breakthroughs over the years, pegged for the media coverage they might get on World AIDS Day that they simply won't get at another time of the year.
Something is very wrong with that. And even with the media focused on AIDS, it doesn't mean the coverage is incisive or lacks the sensationalism that so much of the media craves. Housing Works, a New York City AIDS group dedicated to battling the duel problem of AIDS and homelessness, notes the headlines on the eve of World AIDS Day: "Few in US with HIV have virus under control" and "HIV Out Of Control In US Patients":
These headlines were ostensibly written to explain a new CDC study showing less than half of all people with HIV in the US have access to treatment. Not only that, but a meager 28 percent have viral load suppression, a key element to staying healthy and preventing the spread of HIV to others.
Why is the media blaming people with HIV for not being in better health with misleading headlines? Maybe in order to get more hits on their websites and sell more papers. A little reporting would have easily revealed some of the reasons why more people with HIV are not in treatment or don't have better health outcomes, for example, the economic crisis that's causing states to cut or drastically reduce eligibility for [AIDS Drug Assistance Program].
While it's important to have politicians and celebrities focused on AIDS - even if for a day - World AIDS Day has often also been used as a public relations vehicle for many to show they care while not doing enough. During the Bush years, the big red ribbon went up on the White House every year on December 1 and the President gave impassioned speeches -- even as he cut domestic programs. The same is going on in the Obama years.
We've seen some great breakthroughs and there is cause for optimism. We really could see an AIDS-free generation, as Hillary Clinton said a few weeks ago. But as The Huffington Post's Public Health Editor, Dr. Susan Blumenthal, notes, that's not going to happen without sustained efforts, particularly at prevention in this country and around the world:
Our nation is at a momentous decision point. We can either make the commitment to end the AIDS epidemic or spend billions of dollars each year for generations to come. If there is to be a world without AIDS, governments, foundations, scientists, health care providers and NGOs must work together to strengthen efforts and commit the needed resources to achieve this goal, including increasing the president's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) treatment goal, increasing funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and fully supporting implementation of the U.S. National HIV/AIDS Strategy released last year.
That's where the media's attention is crucial. For those with HIV in the U.S. and around the world who need medical care, and for those in at-risk communities who are not infected but could be any day, it's World AIDS Day every day. It doesn't go away at the end of the next media cycle. And the only way it has a chance of dissipating is if government and media responsibly focus on the issue the other 364 days of the year.