by David Waggoner
Lost in Emotion
Airplanes disappear without a trace. Epidemics continue without an end in sight. What phenomenon makes the first a riveting mystery that demands closure and the second something that can be slowed to a crawl?
What mystifies me is how much media attention has been paid to the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 off the southwestern coast of Australia. When the 2005 Tsunami killed nearly half a million people, the news dwelled on this natural catastrophe and extreme loss of human life. I thought the news coverage was commensurate with the level of tragedy. The news cycle finally moved on. When the earthquake in Haiti happened it stayed in the spotlight for some time but then faded as the storyline grew static, though actor Sean Penn was frequently able to bring attention back to the suffering of an entire nation, including thousands living with HIV who couldn’t access their HIV meds due to the severe interruption of basic health services.
So why is the crash of a Malaysian airliner such a fixation of the evening news (even to the point that we forget that Russia is amassing troops on Ukraine’s eastern border)? Is it because it is a mystery; and mysteries make for good ratings? As with Amelia Earhart’s disappearance way back when, which, by the way, still makes headlines, people are mesmerized by the trail of clues and the promise of an a-ha moment—when a wreckage is discovered, or hijackers reveal they landed a plane on a secret airfield, or the pilot is found to have had a suicidal plan.
AIDS isn’t a mystery: We know what happened; we know what is happening; and we know what will happen. We know how the virus is transmitted. We know it continues to take over a million lives every year. We know we need to improve access to healthcare. We know lives could be extended. A “rescue” is there for the taking.
So, how can we get the news channels to cover HIV/AIDS with as much diligence as they’ve covered Flight 370, with experts at the ready to talk about every aspect of the epidemic and hi-tech graphics to show the prevalence of HIV from region to region?
If we must, we could repackage HIV/AIDS as a mystery. We certainly don’t know everything there is to know about the virus itself. It even acts mysteriously, hiding out in reservoirs. We don’t know how exactly to create a functional cure. We don’t know how to best translate knowledge into action; we know how to prevent HIV, so why is the message not applied? We don’t know how to break the cycle of stigma? See? It’s a mystery.
As much as I feel that HIV/AIDS deserves this kind of attention, I don’t want to dismiss the ways that individuals and organizations work to educate about HIV and advocate for themselves and others in the AIDS community, all without an array of CNN satellites and Anderson Cooper’s handsome but solemn mug.
There may be something to dispelling an air of mystery and staying grounded. I’m thinking of David Burtka, this month’s cover story interview. As A&U’s Dann Dulin finds out, Burtka is vigilant about keeping the prevention message alive and strengthening our resolve to meet life’s challenges, as his family did when his mother was diagnosed with cancer and swiftly died. “Having the right mindset can overcome difficulties just with good thoughts,” he affirms.
I’m thinking of advocates represented across the pages of this issue. Tim Courtney, Dudley Saunders, Traci Dinwiddie, and Tim Cummings all use various media to help get the word out about AIDS. Or check out our interview with Dr. Gary Blick, who, as an HIV care physician and a researcher working on gene-modified therapy that may provide a functional cure for those living with HIV/AIDS, has logged thirty-plus years and is still motivated to keep going. Finally, A&U’s Sean Black offers a portrait of Desert AIDS Project, another veteran in the fight. With innovative services, a constant eye on developing best practices, and helping to shape policy to protect our community, the non-profit is truly a rejuvenating spring that extends our lives.
Maybe we don’t need an airplane after all. By staying grounded, we can take flight.
David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U. He founded A&U—the first national magazine dedicated to HIV/AIDS—twenty-three years ago.