by David Waggoner
Still at Risk
July isn’t just another month on the AIDS awareness calendar; it’s the month we’ve all been looking forward to for the last two years: The XXth International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, convenes July 25. Kicking off the international gathering of thousands of scientists, social workers, AIDS activists, and pharmaceutical and healthcare company representatives, this year’s conference is the first to take place in a country that practically defined the proactive response to the HIV/AIDS healthcare crisis in the late eighties.
With a low infection rate for a modern, industrialized nation, Australia has always been exemplary for its forward-looking attitude regarding needle exchange policies and explicit AIDS awareness campaigns. While we were still struggling with the legacy of Jesse Helms and Ronald Reagan’s unenlightened approach to public health, Melbourne and Sydney were spearheading an honest approach to prevention. How many lives were saved? Thousands. Thank you, Australia, for leading the way in the fight against AIDS.
But enough congratulations. We’ve got more work to do. Let’s use this conference as the kickoff of a new consciousness: everyone living with HIV deserves to live. The only way that’s going to happen is if everyone who’s positive has 100-percent access to antiretrovirals. The reason why I almost titled this essay, “The Fatal Shore,” is not because Australia is any deadlier than any other famous vacation destination. It’s because it’s the title of one of my favorite nonfiction books, The Fatal Shore, by the Aussie art critic and historian Robert Hughes, who died in 2012. Hughes was more than the lead art critic of Time magazine for three decades. He was also one of the first historians to recognize that the spread of HIV was aided by airline travel. Although HIV originated in a small village somewhere in Africa, it went everywhere pretty quickly because of our global connectedness. AIDS as a pandemic was, in part, a product of the space age—traveling easily from continent to continent. Ironic, isn’t it, that it took an Australian-born cultural historian to first point out that AIDS was, and continues to be, a disease that doesn’t recognize borders?
As a frequent airline traveler himself, Mr. Hughes was able to see the big picture. He was one of the first to view HIV not as a scourge of just the gay community, but a disease that truly threatened all genders, sexual orientations, and socio-economic groups. He recognized it as the first truly modern plague.
And yet, as humans, we have not cowered. We have learned that we can come together to fight this deadly pandemic. By taking notes at a plenary session, having coffee with a colleague, or meeting someone new from the other side of the world, we can get to zero. We can envision the big picture, too—an AIDS-free planet.
As A&U’s Dann Dulin found out from interviewing this month’s cover story, Michael Urie, AIDS can only be stopped if today’s youth are at the center of prevention efforts. The young Ugly Betty cast member and star of the Off-Broadway revival of Angels in America is wise for his years: “It’s impossible for me to relate how it was back then at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.” This honest assessment of how distant the early days of dying from AIDS really do seem to those most at risk, recognizes an opportunity that we haven’t taken to heart. As Urie sees it, keeping the past present is one way the arts can reinvigorate AIDS education. PrEP is also at the forefront of prevention efforts these days, though it has been slow to take off. This month, A&U introduces a new column by Corey Saucier, who, as an HIV-positive individual, will explore all the ways that PrEP impacts life with a new (seronegative) love. And writer Michelle Zei sits down with five participants who are part of I AM Men’s Health, a PrEP support group at Philadelphia FIGHT, who share their perspectives on incorporating this tool into their lives. Check out our articles on preventing transmission via injection drug use in the country of Georgia as well as mother-to-child across Africa.
We are a world still at risk. HIV depends on our connectivity, but so does our effort to get to zero.
David Waggoner is editor in chief and publish of A&U, the first national U.S.-based HIV/AIDS magazine.