Twenty-five years ago this week, a core group of passionate activists organized the first World AIDS Day to raise awareness and launch a concerted fight against a mysterious new disease reaching pandemic proportions in the United States and the international community.
Twenty-five years later, the pandemic remains but public consciousness about it wanes. What with new anti-retroviral drugs that no longer make acquired immune deficiency syndrome an automatic death sentence for its sufferers and with public health campaigns moving on to other afflictions, many in our community and in the world have been lulled into a false security that the battle against HIV/AIDS has been won.
Fortunately, marchers in Youngstown and around the globe took to the streets this week to starkly remind us that the fight against AIDS is far from over. Although the quarter-century crusade against the contagion has yielded many impressive victories in promising new drugs, therapies and public- and private-sector investments, many challenges toward eradicating the scourge that is HIV/AIDS remain, not the least of which is slowing its spread.
AIDS BY THE NUMBERS
Numbers tell part of the story. Around the world, more than 25 million people have died from the virus, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in recorded history. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV infection, and 636,000 have died from it. In the Mahoning Valley, June 2013 data from the Ohio Department of Health show 528 people are living with HIV/AIDS.
As if those numbers aren’t frightening enough, the pace of new infections is particularly troubling. After years of declines and stability in new HIV infections, those rates again are on the rise, particularly so with some specific populations including young gay men and racial minorities.
African Americans and Hispanics continue to experience the most severe burden of HIV, compared with other races. Anita Davis, a co-organizer of the Youngstown World AIDS Day march, pointed out that black women make up 65 percent of new HIV cases.
“In the African-American community, we still have our head in the sand about this disease,” Davis said at the march. Numbers from ODH bear out her concern. In Mahoning County, 65 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases last year were among blacks and Hispanics, though those groups represent only about 19 percent of the county’s population.
AWARENESS CAMPAIGNS FADE
It may or may not be coincidental that infection rates are rising as public awareness campaigns are fading away. In Youngstown, for example the AIDS Task Force that did considerable community outreach has been defunded because of budgetary constraints.
In its absence, private groups should take up the gauntlet and organize community awareness and educational programs and outreach.
Fortunately, not all public-sector entities have given up on the cause. President Obama this week announced a U.S. commitment of $5 billion to buttress the program begun by former President George W. Bush to stem the tide of AIDS in Africa. In addition, the NIH will invest $100 million over the next three years to launch an initiative for a cure for HIV.
But as we have witnessed over the past 25 years, staunching the spread of HIV/AIDS has been and continues to be a slow and costly process. That’s no reason, however, to abandon hope or to completely remove the pandemic from our collective consciousness.
Those on the front lines of HIV/AIDS research are painfully aware of the necessity to find a cure. It is time the rest of us reawaken AIDS awareness and recommit our nation to defeating this scourge once and for all.