Infection rates continue to rise among the young, who never saw the ravages of HIV at its worst
Epidemic, plague, scourge, disaster — what are they talking about?
Sometimes the face of HIV/AIDS looks almost pretty these days, making the horrific scenes from 20 years ago seem almost like nothing more than a bad dream.
Gone are the visions of lesion-scarred young men turning into walking skeletons practically overnight, dying in unimaginable pain and misery.
In their place we see advertisements of handsome young men enjoying life while taking the latest miracle drug designed to combat HIV and make drug companies gobs of money.
Our gala fundraisers such as the Black Tie Dinner and other events like AIDS Arms LifeWalk — although noble in purpose — evoke so much cheer and celebration that the HIV/AIDS prevention message gets blurred. AIDS Arms’ website this week features an announcement for "Canine Cool Drool 3" on Sue Ellen’s patio June 13 benefiting the organization.
It all sounds like a lot of fun, and it’s easy to see how young people could become deluded into thinking there is no great risk to themselves or their friends, because they never witnessed the ravages of the AIDS epidemic a quarter-century ago.
That’s long been a concern of some HIV activists, and the latest report from the Centers of Disease Control seems to bear that out.
"Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance in the U.S. 2009," released June 4 on the CDC’s website, reports that 34.2 percent of high school students surveyed revealed they were currently sexually active.
Of those, 38.9 percent said they had not used a condom during their last sexual intercourse.
That behavior had led to substantial health and social problems from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, according to the CDC report analysis.
The only conclusion to be reached from such a survey’s results is that the HIV/AIDS prevention message is failing in the U.S. Young people are not scared enough of becoming horribly sick to protect themselves from an easily preventable — but thus far incurable — disease.
The CDC’s most recent statistical report, "HIV and AIDS in the U.S.: A Picture of Today’s Epidemic," released August 2009, also confirms the concerns. More than 25 years into the epidemic, new infections are rampant, according to the report.
The CDC estimates that at the end of 2006, about 1.2 million people were living with HIV. Of those, 56,000 represented new infections occurring in that year, and more than half of them were in gay and bisexual men.
By age, people 25 to 44 accounted for 57 percent of new diagnoses. In regard to ethnicity, black men were seven times more likely to be infected than white men while Hispanic men were three times more likely than white men to become infected.
About one-fourth of the infected individuals are believed to be unaware of their HIV status and therefore likely to spread the virus to others.
Here in Texas, we apparently are suffering from the epidemic more than in most of the rest of the nation. The CDC statistics reveal that Texas ranks fourth in the top 10 states for the number of AIDS cases documented in 2007. The large metropolitan areas — such as Dallas-Fort Worth — with large concentrations of gay and bisexual men are naturally the sites of most of the cases.
All of this easily accessible information leads to the obvious realization that no matter how much effort has been undertaken in spreading the HIV prevention message, it has not been enough.
It doesn’t mean that the state’s public and charitable HIV/AIDS agencies and their employees are inept, uncaring or ineffective. It just means that perhaps they haven’t been doing enough in terms of spreading an effective HIV prevention message.
For me, the most effective HIV prevention message was witnessing the slow, agonizing deaths of about a dozen of my friends to the disease.
There are painful images burned into my mind. One is the image of my childhood friend wearing a diaper at the age of 50, struggling to walk with a cane down a hallway from his bedroom to see me one last time because he didn’t want to be lying in bed when I visited him.
Another is of a friend who had been so vain about his good looks hiding in an apartment to die because he was scarred almost beyond recognition by Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. And finally, I remember attending funerals and memorial services for people who died long before they should have, feeling the grief and trying to comfort their families.
Maybe, that’s the only effective prevention message there really is — presenting a clear picture of the ravages of HIV. I’d say at this point we need to make the message at all events more graphic, no matter what it costs in terms of dampening the spirits of the celebrants.
David Webb is a former staff writer for the Dallas Voice who lives on Cedar Creek Lake now. He is the author of the blog TheRareReporter.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 11, 2010.