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Time for a New AIDS Storyline

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By the time Tom Hanks had won an Oscar in 1994 for portraying a gay man dying of AIDS, 270,000 Americans had died from the disease -- most of them gay men. It had been thirteen years since an obscure medical publication reported a mysterious syndrome that caused a rapid, terrifying collapse of the immune system in a handful of gay men. That was June 5, 1981, thirty years ago this week.

Because of who the initial victims were, the disease was initially tagged with one of the most misleading names in medical history: Gay Related Immune Deficiency. It was largely ignored by the federal government and mainstream media. Pretending an epidemic does not exist did nothing to slow it down. In fact, prejudice and indifference enabled the spread of AIDS.

Thirty years later, it still does.

In those early years, healthy people became sick and died in weeks, or even days. Almost no information was available about how AIDS was caused or spread. Yet brave men and women cared for their friends and loved ones, demanded that they be treated with dignity and insisted that our government provide basic services and start the medical research machinery moving. Countless people died alone and abandoned in the early days of AIDS, and countless more continue to die that way today.

As I talk with friends, they often ask "AIDS is pretty much over, right?" No, AIDS is not over. Consider the nearly three million preventable new HIV infections per year, the fear and homophobia that still drives HIV underground, the untreated epidemic of drug use in our country, or the fact that young people, especially gay and bisexual men, immigrants and people of color still bear the overwhelming burden of this disease.

Worldwide, more than 60 million people have been infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. 2.6 million are newly infected each year. Too many are still infected because of ignorance or because society considers their lives expendable. Too few receive the basic treatment that can help them live.

People die from AIDS everyday. Not just in far off places -- right here in the United States.

The 30th year of AIDS gives us pause to remember loved ones we've lost and to honor those who fought against a misunderstood and feared disease. Honoring their memory is important, but we must also fight as hard as they did to make sure there is no reason to recognize a 40th or 50th year of AIDS.

Thirty years ago, we did not know how to stop AIDS. Today, the means to end this epidemic are right in front of us.

Today we know that screening for HIV as part of routine health care makes good sense. It helps us identify and deliver essential care to the one in five people living with HIV who are unaware of their infection, while at the same time reducing the stigma and misinformation that prevents people from getting tested in the first place.

Today we know that providing treatment and quality medical care to people living with HIV greatly improves their health and reduces the chances that they could infect someone else by 96%.

Today we know that providing a preventative daily antiretroviral drug to gay and bisexual men at high risk for HIV can reduce their chances of contracting the virus by up to 90%.

Today we know that providing clean needles virtually eliminates HIV transmission among injection drug users and creates an important bridge to drug addiction treatment.

Today we know that sexually active people will dramatically alter their sexual behavior to reduce their HIV risk if they are provided with the tools and information to do so.

Today we finally have a National HIV/AIDS Strategy to guide federal agencies, health departments and community groups, and a health reform package with the potential to bring prevention and care to millions of people who are currently shut out of the health care system.

Add all of these things together and a few important things become apparent:

First, we can beat this epidemic. The first responders to HIV/AIDS were surrounded by fear and misinformation. Today we are surrounded by proven strategies to fight HIV.

Second, we must invest more in the response to HIV/AIDS. In the United States, recent cutbacks have created long waiting lists for HIV treatment. These cuts cost lives. They also reverse important gains in HIV prevention. Government AIDS research budgets are also dropping, just as promising avenues to stop this epidemic are discovered. And the pharmaceutical industry, while reducing AIDS research commitments, continues to make billions from the epidemic.

Third, stigma, homophobia and racism remain lethal enemies. HIV continues to spread fastest in the United States among young gay and bisexual men -- especially gay and bisexual men of color. Treating people with dignity, promoting self-pride and teaching them to protect their health and the health of their loved ones is not expensive. In many states where HIV is spreading fastest, a new wave of anti-gay legislation keeps young people closeted and vulnerable to HIV.

Yes, fear and ignorance spread HIV as efficiently today as it did thirty years ago.

Another 350,000 people have died of AIDS in the United States since Hanks won our hearts in the ground-breaking film, Philadelphia. Thirty years later, it's time for a new AIDS storyline. Let's make this one about a return to a world we once knew -- a world without AIDS. To truly honor those we have lost in the first thirty years of AIDS we must act boldly, as they would have acted, to end this epidemic for good.

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