November 21, 2011
Oh, it's that time of year again: World AIDS Day.
And while each year is accompanied by some sort of theme that aims to incite people to do something or be more aware of a certain aspect of this fight against AIDS, this year's mantra of "Getting to Zero: Zero New HIV Infections. Zero Discrimination. Zero AIDS-Related Deaths," really intrigued me. It's a simple, yet incredibly complicated idea that advocates and people living with the disease have been striving toward for 30 years.
Let's just look at transmission rates.
Given that 33 million people around the world are living with HIV/AIDS, including 1.2 million people in the U.S., what will it really take to achieve zero new HIV infections? And have we learned from past mistakes to help us achieve this in our lifetime?
This year alone, we have seen some interesting developments aimed at reducing infections from scientific, grassroots and educational standpoints. But I must be frank: It was only a year and a half ago that the U.S. National HIV/AIDS Strategy was released, and I remember quite a few advocates balking at the goal of reducing new infections by 25 percent before 2015 (from 56,300 to 42,225). Of course the lack of increased funding to actually make this happen played a huge role, but the issue remains the same.
If reducing 14,000 infections in the U.S. is considered difficult, getting to zero new infections worldwide, especially in the developing world, might be asking for a miracle. And I don't say this to be a downer, because aiming high is the only way to get us out of this pandemic. But it's important for us to look at our current situation and be realistic about the possibility of making this dream our reality.
Just looking at the U.S., we have so many obstacles standing in our way. To name a few that push this disease further into the closet: conservative lawmakers and constituents who view this epidemic as a moral issue as opposed to a public health crisis; a lack of funding and support for life-saving policies such as needle exchange and comprehensive sex education; a broken health care system that makes itself too hard to access for those at the highest risk; doctor's own bias about who needs to be tested; and silence, stigma and misinformation about the disease.
Now add in issues such as poverty, racism, homophobia, gender oppression and the overall lack of compassion for people living with the disease and it's easy to see how 30 years later, this epidemic continues to run rampant in this country. And it's not a secret as to which communities this disease runs rampant in: the ones that are the most vulnerable, the most fragmented and with the least amount of power, influence and options.
And so if we are really serious about dramatically reducing HIV infections, we can't solely rely on the medicines, PrEP and microbicides, or pour a majority of our efforts and funding into a cure or a vaccine. If we are truly ready to put our money where our mouths are, we need to have more conversations about strategies that will give those with less power in society more power in order to prosper and stay HIV negative. This shift also means thinking outside of the box, being open to new ideas and uplifting and partnering with the folks who are actually doing this kind of transformative work.
We can no longer be content working in our own silos separated from other social justice movements and causes, because in the end all of our work is somehow connected.
Just think about it: Having a vaginal gel that reduces a woman's chance of contracting HIV and herpes really means nothing if the women who need it the most can't afford it, don't receive the outreach they need to know that it exists, don't have the health literacy to use it properly and don't have the power to make their own health a priority. For example, what will happen if our government ends up defunding Planned Parenthood, the place most likely to offer many women access to these microbicides? We could find ourselves with a gel that won't ever live up to its full potential.
This is why striving for social and economic equality and equal access for all -- both negative and positive -- is crucial if we are going to end AIDS, not just in the U.S., but around the world. No, it won't be easy or immediate. It's going to be a long and difficult struggle that will require a commitment from all of us in the community.
TheBody.com's contribution, among many, is our World AIDS Day 2011 section. Given that knowledge equals power, we hope that our diverse and informative content -- geared for both HIV-negative and positive people -- will inspire you to do, think and learn more about the fight against HIV/AIDS. Also, you can locate events in your area to attend; educate yourself and your community with informative fact sheets; and read a diverse helping of first-person stories and commentaries in which people discuss their experiences living with or being affected by HIV. You can also read about what other organizations across the world are doing to attain this goal of reducing infections in their area.
In the end, we hope our World AIDS Day 2011 section challenges you to do more and expand your mind on what it's going to really take to get the world to zero.
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.
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