Fourteen years ago, I joined an online startup effort called TheBody.com with a simple goal: to build a Web site that would serve people living with HIV/AIDS and those who care about them.
At the time, I was mourning the death of my brother from AIDS. As his caretaker, I had learned an amazing amount about accessing state-of-the-art medical information (without the Web!).
Building TheBody.com was an opportunity to not only help others affected by HIV, but it was also a chance to begin healing from my brother's tragic death.
The ban on travel or immigration to the U.S. by people living with HIV/AIDS is officially over today. It was an ugly law that had been in place since 1987 and caused countless humiliations. Most students applying for visas to study in the U.S. could not get a visa if they were HIV positive. People from overseas who had the opportunity to work in the U.S. were denied work visas if they were HIV positive. Tourists and businessmen and women were denied visas because of their HIV status.
We will never know all the distress this ban caused at U.S. consulates and borders as men and women with HIV innocently acknowledged their illness only to have their visa application rejected or be denied entry into the U.S. Every person in the U.S. applying for a green card had to be tested for HIV. Today that requirement is no longer necessary.
You may have seen that newly revised recommendations were announced by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists regarding cervical cancer screening. These revised recommendations call for less-frequent cervical cancer screening: a Pap smear once every two years for women between the ages of 21 and 30, and once every three years for women 30 and up who have had three consecutive negative test results.
It's important to note that the recommendations do not apply to HIV-positive women. Women with HIV are a noted exception, and that's because many studies have indicated that HIV-positive women are at greater risk than HIV-negative women for HPV-16 and HPV-18, the two strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause most cases of cervical cancer. In addition, HPV infection in HIV-positive women is more likely to progress to cervical cancer.
In other recent good news, South African President Jacob Zuma finally broke definitively with South Africa's former government when he said in a speech, "Knowledge will help us to confront denialism and the stigma attached to the disease." He also discussed the vast numbers of people in South Africa who are dying of HIV/AIDS-related causes.
The lead activist organization in South Africa, the Treatment Action Campaign, called the speech "one of the most important speeches in the history of AIDS in South Africa." In his speech, Zuma detailed how he would address HIV/AIDS in South Africa:
People in the HIV/AIDS community could be forgiven for thinking that, despite the election of Barack Obama, they still did not have a close friend in the White House.
After all, despite all the recent cacophony about health care reform, HIV/AIDS has not been mentioned. In fact, apart from Obama's widely praised selection in February 2009 of Jeffrey Crowley, M.P.H., to lead the Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), and the subsequent commencement in August of a series of ONAP community meetings throughout the U.S. (and establishment of the energetic AIDS.gov office and Web site), there's been little direct comment about HIV/AIDS by President Obama since he came into office.
This has been somewhat disconcerting, given the long silence about domestic HIV throughout the entire eight years of the Bush administration, and given the devastation occurring in Obama's new backyard of Washington, D.C., where up to 3 percent of residents are estimated to have HIV.
A new era has dawned in HIV/AIDS. For years, public health experts, health care providers and researchers have been pleading with the U.S. government to remove the federal ban on funding for needle exchange programs and to accelerate the growth of these programs across the U.S.
They wanted this done for one simple reason: Syringe exchange programs can save lives. They can be an important component in reducing the spread of blood-borne infectious diseases -- including HIV and hepatitis -- among injection drug users.
According to many studies, these programs do not encourage drug use, contrary to what many conservatives say. Instead, they encourage the humanitarian treatment of people who have a substance abuse problem. Syringe exchange programs not only help provide clean needles, they provide access to health care for a population that doesn't ordinarily access health services.
I was somewhat active in the HIV activist organization ACT UP in the early 1990s. I witnessed ACT UP's continually inventive, passionate activism in packed weekly meetings at Cooper Union in the East Village in New York City. At these meetings, deeply committed people came up with ways to rectify injustices. Every week, a new series of actions were planned. It was inspiring to be involved, particularly because many of our actions had the intended effect.
I was brought back to those times this month by none other than New York State Senator Thomas Duane -- New York's first openly HIV-positive, and first openly gay, state senator. A recent video of a speech he gave on the floor of the Senate is being passed around the Internet. When I began watching it, I was immediately mesmerized. In it, Duane tries to convince New York's State Senate not to kill a bill meant to help low-income people living with HIV. The bill states that people who are living with symptomatic HIV or AIDS, and who are receiving housing assistance or an emergency shelter allowance, will not be required to pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent and utilities.