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Myles Helfand

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It's World AIDS Day. Who Cares?

Posted: 12/01/10 05:30 PM ET

To most of humanity, today is World AIDS Day. To most of the world's 33 million people who are living with HIV, it's Wednesday.

Radio and television airwaves today will carry an endless stream of numbers, delivered in a heavy tone by somber news anchors, talk show hosts and political leaders. There will be calls for more awareness, more funding, more testing, more action, more research, more treatment, more condoms, more abstinence, more tolerance. And the 1.2 million people in the United States who have HIV will wake up, get dressed, eat, go to work, care for their children, do the laundry, go shopping -- and, of course, take their meds. Just like they do every day.

On Dec. 2, the world will move on to its next topic, satisfied that it has done its part. And people with HIV will wake up, get dressed, eat, go to work, care for their children, do the laundry, go shopping and take their meds. Just like they did the day before.

Maybe it's wrong for me to be cynical about World AIDS Day. Something is surely better than nothing, after all, and one of the core reasons that HIV remains so pervasive in our society is the quite-literally-deadly silence that surrounds it. Any effort to combat that silence with science and sensitivity deserves to be lauded.

But there are so many World Whatever Days. How many people really take the time to learn more about breast cancer on its awareness day, or malaria on its awareness day? How about diabetes, mental illness, stuttering, arthritis, or the multitude of other diseases and health conditions that have their own designated 24-hour span in the spotlight? Do they change anything? Do they change anyone? I can't help but feel that World AIDS Day, however noble its origins, has become little more than a distraction. A side show. An opportunity for world leaders and hand-wringers to pay lip service to a cause they otherwise usually ignore, and an opportunity for many of us within the HIV/AIDS community to fool ourselves into thinking this day is about making a massive difference in the world.

The reality is, World AIDS Day is just another day. Yes, activists will shout, politicians will make passionate speeches, news programs will cite reams of mind-numbing statistics, and we'll all agree that HIV/AIDS is still a super-big-scary problem in the world and someone should really do something about it. But awareness days like this are a dragon feeding its own tail. The people who most need to learn from it are the people who are least likely to. You're reading my words right now because you already care. Much of humanity does not.

The world around us is a megaphone, endlessly screaming about an infinite number of looming crises, solutions, disasters, miracles, threats and saviors. In reaction to it, we each tend to wrap ourselves in the blankets our own lives and our own problems. What place does HIV/AIDS have in that reality? Most people don't want any more issues to think about. Most people don't want to know about any more threats. Most people just want to live their lives, tend to their own needs and shape their worldview around those they love and trust.

And that is where our window for change lies. It's not about us changing the world in one fell swoop. It's not about us using World AIDS Day as a platform to scream to the heavens for the clouds to clear, for HIV stigma to vanish from the earth and for condoms and free antiretrovirals to rain down from the sky. We're not that powerful. We're not Barack Obama, or Pope Benedict XVI, or Oprah. We're just people.

For us, World AIDS Day -- just like any Wednesday -- needs to be about one person, taking one moment, to teach one new thing about HIV/AIDS to a person who loves them and trusts them. That's how regular people can make a difference. I think I'll go do that.

 

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