Every two years the world's most signified AIDS researchers assemble to disperse cutting edge information to international listeners. The 11th International Conference on AIDS, held July 7 - 12 in Vancouver, B.C. ceded new hope for people living with HIV/AIDS.
A Major Turning Point
For the first time in the history of the epidemic, scientists spoke of the possibility of eradication of HIV from the blood streams of infected people. With the new diagnostic tests of viral loads (which measure the quantity of viral particles in the blood) people can have a better idea of when to start, stop or change treatments. We know that the higher the viral load, the more rapidly progression to AIDS occurs. This knowledge marks a turning point in the AIDS epidemic. Therapy with a new classification of drugs, protease inhibitors, in combination with approved antivirals such as ddI & AZT offers undespairing, yet cautious optimism for the AIDS community.
No More Monotherapy
It has been unequivocally confirmed that HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. Without the presence of HIV there would be no AIDS. We also know without dilemma that therapy for HIV infection with a single agent such as AZT or ddI (or any other single drug) doesn't work. In fact, some presenters at the conference stated that monotherapy for HIV infection is now considered to be malpractice. Treatment may be done in combination with two drugs or more to avoid or reduce the incidence of therapy resistant mutant strains of HIV.
I attended the AIDS Conference with my lover who has HIV infection. Over 15,000 people assembled in Vancouver making this the most well attended International AIDS event ever. Among the attendees were countless numbers of lesbians. There were Lesbian doctors, clinicians, representatives of leading pharmaceutical companies, lesbian social workers, lesbian researchers, care givers, lesbians who work in all aspects of the AIDS community, and indeed lesbians infected with HIV.
The "L" Word
There were over 5,000 presentations on scientific data and social issues relevant to people with HIV/AIDS, yet only 10 abstracts contained the word lesbian. There were no presentations focusing on lesbian health.
There was no mention of the "L" word in a presentation on sexuality in women, nor in another session on sexuality in general. From the information at the conference, you'd think that lesbians were not sexual people, had no health problems, or any social service concerns.
The abstracts that were on lesbians were essentially about woman to woman transmission. There was one presentation on observational sampling of women with HIV/AIDS and women at risk for HIV. In this study, scientists found in a national sampling of women from the U.S. that almost 65% of women surveyed had had a same gender sexual experience. (Women's Interagency HIV Study) Perhaps not all of these women identified as being lesbian, gay-women or dykes, but nevertheless this constitutes a significant finding for the lesbian community.
With this data, the numbers of lesbians in attendance, and the numbers of lesbians who have HIV, why then is the AIDS community hesitant to include lesbian issues in scientific research? Perhaps some or even most lesbian sexual activities are low risk situations for transmission. Notwithstanding, lesbians infected with HIV do exist. Lesbians are not exempt from getting this virus by virtue of our sexual identity. It's not who you have sex with, it's what you do during sex that puts you at risk for AIDS.
Many lesbians have been involved in AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic. We took care of our gay friends when they were sick. In a time when even other gay men were afraid to get close to their friends who had AIDS, we laundered their soiled sheets and nursed their bed sores. We have been leaders and primary organizers in the AIDS activist movement. We've developed programs to address the needs of women & children with AIDS. And we have been living with the virus in our blood and dying of AIDS since the beginning. Still, there are apparent indications of Lezbo-phobia even within the HIV/AIDS predominantly homosexual community. Our issue is not necessarily about transmission risks. It's one of inclusion and sensitivity.
I am reminded of the opening day of the conference. Doreen Millman, a 63 year old woman disclosed to the world that she too has AIDS. "I know many of you are probably asking yourselves how I got infected-you're wondering how a 63 year old grandmother from North Vancouver could have been exposed to HIV. Well, the answer is very simple: IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER. ": Her emphatic comment drew a two minute standing ovation. Her message was clear. Anyone can get AIDS. Furthermore, all who are affected with HIV/AIDS need to be included in all aspects of the epidemic from scientific research to community discussions.
As lesbians deeply affected by AIDS, my lover and I grow increasingly appalled with the lack of useful information relevant to our lives.