At International AIDS Conference Do We Need More From Science Or From Man?
8/7/2012 3:00:00 PM
By Alex Garner
Nearly 25,000 people from all around the globe gathered in Washington, D.C. for the International AIDS Conference. The conference theme, “Turning The Tide Together,” set an optimistic tone, which contrasted with the reality of many man made disasters that continue to fuel the epidemic. It was a gathering that highlighted the promise of science, the evils of man, and the extraordinary potential of human kind.
“AIDS free generation” was the mantra of many speakers at the conference, but by day two it became as overused as “Where’s the beef?” There was plenty of talk about scientific advancements, vaccine research, treatment as prevention, and PrEP. Often the sessions were dry and sleep inducing, as academics droned on about their latest paper. But the science is valid. It’s working and it only looks to get better.
We know that getting people on medications will reduce their viral loads and help them live longer and healthier lives. Secondarily, a suppressed viral load means the chances of transmitting the virus are extremely low. Now we’ve got to figure out better ways to get them into care and on medications, if they choose.
We know that PrEP works. We can’t say for sure how PrEP will play out in the real world but that doesn’t make its science any less accurate. There are grave ethical concerns and financial barriers but the research is sound.
When it comes to the science of the, “Berlin Patient,” Timothy Brown, it’s all about practicality. It was announced that two other HIV-positive people had cleared the virus from their body after going through the same bone marrow replacement procedure. However, they are still on antiretrovirals and it’s unknown if and when they will be able to stop taking them. Additionally, bone marrow replacement is very costly and isn’t the sort of thing we could do for millions of people. Also, it’s worth noting that this procedure doesn’t make an individual immune from getting HIV in the future. But whatever the case, there is plenty to learn from this advancement.
Science is good. It may be complicated and slow going but it’s one of the success stories. Another good thing is money. People made lots of announcements about all the money that will be going to treat or prevent HIV. Secretary Clinton announced various funds that will go to help women in Africa, Secretary Sebelius announced new and innovative partnerships with MAC and Walgreens and $80 million in grants to end ADAP waiting lists. The details of these initiative and more can be found at AIDS.gov.
So science is doing what it’s supposed to and we are getting more money to the right places but what about man? What impact or people having on the epidemic?
We are all well aware that man made problems like, homophobia, stigma, sexism, and poverty, make it significantly more difficult for people to be engaged in prevention, care and treatment.
Secretary Clinton said it best, “If we’re going to beat AIDS, we can’t afford to avoid sensitive conversations, and we can’t fail to reach the people who are at the highest risk.”
So it falls to us, as communities and as individuals, to demand, even of Secretary Clinton, that these conversations happen. We can allow people to continue to erase the gay from HIV, even though we are the majority of all infections and all new infections, or we can demand that they put gay men back on the agenda. It’s up to us to call on our entire community to demonstrate that young gay men of color matter. We can mobilize hundreds of people in reaction to a homophobic chicken peddler but where is that same energy and activism when it comes to fighting for the lives of young gay men of color?
Our problems may be man made but so are our solutions. We can fix this. We have a legacy of activism, action and creativity.
The Black AIDS Institute shared recent research that showed that that black gay men have a 1 in 4 chance of being infected by age 25 and by the time they are 40 years old there is a 60% chance they will be infected. These numbers should unsettle us. This is our community and we need make sure we are doing all we can to assure young gay men of color that they have value and that HIV-negative or HIV-positive, their lives matter. We owe it to them and we owe it to ourselves. A recent call for action gives detailed ways we can work together to lessen the burden of HIV among young gay men. You can sign on here.
There are laws in the U.S. and around the globe that fuel the epidemic. Laws that criminalize LGBT people, laws that marginalize women and laws that target people living with HIV. Much of the political agitation at the conference was around a current U.S. travel ban that prevents sex workers and drug user from coming into the country. These are the people at the highest risk for contracting HIV yet they were not permitted to participate because of archaic laws.
The Sero Project presented research that showed that HIV Criminalization discourages people from getting tested. These laws breed stigma and do nothing to prevent new infections. This is but one more example of how man made laws, created out of fear and ignorance, are making the epidemic worse.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who was hailed as a champion at the conference, is working hard to put an end to these unjust laws. Man created these laws so it will take the action of men and women to do away with them.
One area where we still have considerable work to do is sex. If only we had meaningful conversations about sex as often as we did it or thought about doing it. Gay sex is still highly stigmatized and until we change that we will never make a dent in this epidemic. We learn from a very early age to be ashamed of sex and not long after that we learn how dirty gay sex is. Gay sex has value. It can be intimate, erotic, earth shattering, or all of the above. Whatever the experience, it’s our experience and it has meaning. Our community has to work through its discomfort around gay sex so that we can all have healthy and fully realized sexualities. That requires us to have honest and frank discussions about the sex we are having. It means letting go of the guilt and the shame and it means ending the stigmatization of sex without condoms.
The International AIDS Conference was a historic event but instead of giving us lots of groundbreaking news it reminded us that fighting this epidemic isn’t just about science and technology, its about combating the calamities man has created. We’re not all scientists. All of us can’t fight HIV in a lab but there are plenty of things we can do outside of a research center. We are bigger than science. ACT UP, Stonewall, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and the Arab spring are but a few examples of what we can achieve when we are at our best. If we fully realize our potential we can do more than just turn tides, we can change the course of the ocean.
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