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Where Is the Martin Luther King Jr. of HIV?

By Terri Wilder

June 12, 2008

Time: 5:00 p.m.
Place: Georgia

"We must now do better at delivering prevention: less than 20 percent of those at risk of HIV infection are currently receiving such help."
--Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Nature, May 15, 2008)

World AIDS Day has come and gone. The theme for World AIDS Day 2007 was "leadership." The commentary on the World AIDS Day webpage ( noted that this theme can be "as flexible as possible to accommodate a range of campaigning needs."

Isn't this type of "flexible" attitude around HIV part of the problem -- and the reason that we don't have the resources to get rid of this epidemic?

Honestly, I don't think that we have really ever had real leadership around this issue. And I think it's precisely because leadership has been allowed to be flexible, easily bent, and susceptible to modification, that it has only been half-assed ... when it was there at all.

Shouldn't HIV-related leadership be strong, unwavering and without flexibility? Maybe this is why it is lacking and perhaps has never existed. Of course, I don't know if I can even identify a time in history when we have had a definitive HIV "leader." I mean, have we ever really had a person that led the fight against HIV, totally and completely?

It seems that leadership related to HIV in schools, governments, homes, families and certain organizations has always been missing. It is as if everyone has been living in pre-HIV times ... when we didn't need to worry about "it," but we actually should have been.

Please hear me ... I am not talking about the people who have worked hard in HIV ... who have lived/are living with HIV ... who have spent hours upon hours trying to make change ... but as I sit here thinking about this theme I can't really identify THE person who has emerged out of the masses to lead us, advise us and inspire us.

I, of course, discount any AIDS Czar or appointed "leader" in my quest for examples of a "true" HIV leader, for they are often just puppets in an administration or group. We know that the majority of the time, these "leaders" are in fact NOT leaders but just talking heads placed before us to try to make us feel better about the fact that nothing is really being done.

So, what am I talking about? I am talking about a leader that we all trust, that is smart, that has a strategy, and that genuinely cares about people with HIV. I am talking about someone who will recommend a comprehensive prevention plan that is based on science vs. their moral beliefs.

I am talking about someone who is ego-less, who is not "paid" to do this work, and who rises from the masses to inspire us to do everything in our power to stop HIV.

What I am asking is ... where is the Martin Luther King Jr. of HIV? Where is the HIV leader who inspires a sense of joining with others in shared concern, motivates that concern into an active collective approach to addressing these concerns, and facilitates direct action so it can be focused toward accomplishment of goals? Where is this person? Does he or she exist?

I know you're thinking that maybe we have had an occasional leader, but for the most part even the occasional leader has come and gone. They came during a time when they were "needed", there was "something" to work on, when lives were fading away, when meds needed to be found, and treatment needed to be provided ... but then they left -- either through death, exhaustion, or by being beaten down.

So, I wonder what this theme was for: Was it to get leaders inspired to lead? Was it to get us to question our leaders? Was it to ask for new leadership while demanding that old leadership step down? Was it asking us to think about what leadership would look like if we were to go out searching?

I don't know ... so I am not sure how to implement last year's theme into my AIDS work, other than to say that we need a leader -- a real leader who understands that the clock is ticking and that every single day without a vision allows for one more infection and one more death to occur due to the lack of leadership.

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