AIDS anniversary revisits past, reignites fervor

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imageA long and arduous 30 years after the world first learned about the disease we now call AIDS, people are using this week’s anniversary to reflect on how far we’ve come and how much further there is to go, including an Atlanta commemoration and several online resources.

First, the bad news. The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control & Prevention first reported cases of the mystery illness affecting gay men on June 5, 1981. Since then, some 30 million have died worldwide from complications of the disease–some 595,000 of them in the U.S.–and an estimated 1.1 million are living with HIV in the U.S. alone.

More than 56,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. That’s about one every nine minutes, and more than half of them are gay and bisexual men. Nearly 18,000 Americans with AIDS still die each year.

The official estimate is that men who have sex with men account for just 4 percent of the U.S. male population aged 13 and older, but the rate of new HIV diagnoses among them in the U.S. is more than 44 times that of other men.

“There is an urgent need to expand access to proven HIV prevention interventions for gay and bisexual men, as well as to develop new approaches to fight HIV in this population,” the CDC reports.

The numbers are still just as sobering as ever to hear, but the CDC hopes that the 30th anniversary of AIDS reinvigorates interest and urgency among gay men, the only population segment in which cases are still increasing. The agency wants to chip away at apathy caused by years under siege for those of us who remember when it started, and at a lack of knowledge for those who have never known a world without AIDS.

“As the number of people living with HIV grows, the potential for increased transmission of HIV to others grows too,” the CDC says. “Yet after three decades, the sense of crisis about HIV has waned. Many Americans underestimate their personal risk for infection, or believe HIV is no longer a serious health threat. We can’t afford to be complacent. The fact is that HIV is still a deadly disease — but we have the tools to prevent it.”

For individuals, the 30th anniversary is a good time not only to remember friends and family lost, but to dig up the one word that came out of the initial zeal with which LGBT people attacked the problem in the early years: Hope.

In Atlanta, the Living Room has put together 30 Years of AIDS: A Memorial Service on Saturday at Trinity United Methodist Church. The event features religious services as well as performances and speakers.

With a date to pin it on, media outlets are reinvigorating their coverage as well. CNN provides a timeline of milestones since the first report, and has been adding a daily interview with some gay luminaries from across a broad spectrum of the community who’ve lived the crisis.

An online community recognizing 30 years of AIDS with forums, personal stories, photos and reports has popped up, and Atlanta’s Emory University chronicles its research since the beginning of the crisis as well as an online interactive map for tracking the progression of the disease.

On June 15, hosts a webinar with some of the leading voices in AIDS policy about the future of grants and prevention.

The CDC itself launched a complete 30-year history online resource, and it introduces its summer-long “HIV/AIDS: 30 Years of Leadership and Lessons” series of moderated conversations leading up to its Aug. 17 National HIV Prevention Conference. The series includes HIV Testing: Then, Now, Beyond on June 24 and continues with symposiums on Social Injustices of HIV, Prevention Perspectives from the Front Lines, and From Pennsylvania Avenue to Main Street.


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