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New Hope for the New Year

Spirituality Column #3

December 31, 1995

David Baltimore, a Nobel Laureate in molecular biology has stated, "For the first time, I'm truly optimistic that effective now, HIV is a chronic, manageable disease." Baltimore made this amazing statement on Charlie Rose's interview show on the U.S. Public Broadcasting System. He also said it at the recent White House Conference on HIV/AIDS. A Nobel Laureate is saying we have made progress in understanding and treating HIV infection. What incredible news! Why hasn't this been headline news?

It seems as if the media, and even many activists, are continuing the tradition of what Michael Callen, in his book Surviving AIDS, called "The Propaganda of Hopelessness." When it comes to HIV/AIDS, we have to work at finding hope.

But we're hearing hopeful words now, not just from clergy and people of faith, but from the scientists and medical professionals who are working closest with HIV/AIDS. There is suddenly excitement that progress is being made, that the administration is at least trying to listen to those of us working on the front lines of HIV/AIDS.

I've been surprised at the level of satisfaction and hope which people who attended the recent White House Conference on AIDS have expressed. Not surprisingly, the angry or frustrated voices have been heard more loudly in media reports on the conference. There was anger among a number of activists that the White House Conference was "political window dressing."

As an example, coverage in Update, Southern California's Gay & Lesbian Newspaper began with the headline "AIDS Conference Poses Many Questions, Offers Few Answers." Columnist Connie Norman blasted the President for giving a "speech full of election-year empty promises." In his lead story, Editor Petr Pronsati focused on Bob Lederer's angry interruption of the President's address to the Conference. Lederer, the senior editor of POZ magazine, questioned why there had been "no systematic follow-up on the two previous presidential commissions on AIDS..."

Rev. Ken South, Executive Director of the AIDS National Interfaith Network (ANIN) and a conference participant, observed that during the conference, there were also protests by several groups outside the White House, calling for "the implementation of the National AIDS Commission recommendations (as has ANIN and the Council of National Religious AIDS Networks,) and [who] were critical that the conference was more about public relations than substance."

So how can I find hope in the White House Conference? First of all, in terms of the implementation of the former Commissions' recommendations, it is not as bleak as some would have it appear. Rev. South continues that at the White House conference, "I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. June Osborn, the former chair of the National Commission on AIDS. When I asked her about how many of the recommendations she thought had been addressed, she responded that it was her opinion that about half was a fair number."

So is the glass half full or half empty? Some would have us believe that it's completely empty, and it's not.

It is terribly significant that there were words of hope from some of the medical professionals present. Alexandra Levine, M.D., a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, said that at this conference, for the first time she felt real hope from her colleagues in research and clinical care. As chair of the White House conference sub-session on research and treatment, she feels there is real progress being made, quoting Dr. Baltimore's statement that HIV/AIDS can now be understood as a chronic, manageable disease.

Dr. Levine points out that with all the anti-retroviral drugs approved now, the new protease inhibitors, and the ability to prophylax against many of the HIV-related opportunistic infections, people with HIV infection are living much longer, with greater quality of life. There is real medical reason to have hope for life with HIV.

Obviously, we're not at the finish line. While now there is good reason to believe that there are many who will live well with HIV for many years, there are also those whose immune systems are already too badly damaged. Many of us know too many people who have died and who are going to die from the effects of this virus, in spite of any progress, because the progress was not made soon enough.

And there are massive areas of the world where these advances in the medical treatment of HIV are economically inaccessible. We will lose too many more people before there is an end to this. So we still need to be angry and prophetic, crying out for more action and more justice, until there is a cure, and all people everywhere are safe from HIV.

But once again, it is one of the challenges of faith to look for signs of hope. And they are here more clearly than ever before. Rev. South, in his summary of the White House conference, writes, "It was clear that this was a historic event. This was the first time a President of the United States called such a meeting. It was the first time AIDS activists were given an opportunity to spend two hours with the President... This President has given more personal time and energy to this issue than the [previous] two combined... The American public heard a new urgency, the Advisory Council got plenty of work to do, the National AIDS Policy Office learned more, there was better access to Cabinet Secretaries and the President had the opportunity to hear directly from people with AIDS." More than one person has noted that this was the first time any President has mentioned homophobia, let alone spoken out against it.

Clearly, the issues related to HIV/AIDS still pose an enormous challenge. Faith calls for angry, prophetic voices, as well as hope. We need the activists, challenging the establishment and focusing the issues, especially now that the President is apparently listening. Rev. South joins many others in calling for "a formal National AIDS Commission audit, and a report back process from the current Presidential AIDS Advisory Council on the results of this day with the President."

As a person of faith living with AIDS, I keep looking for the hope. As we begin this new year, I take hope in the fact that the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS persuaded the President to hold this conference, and to participate himself. I feel hope because the President acknowledged that "we can't let our homophobia blind us to our obligations." I take hope in the renewed urgency this conference seemed to fuel. I take hope in the optimism expressed by respected researchers and scientists.

"...Effective now, HIV is a chronic, manageable disease."

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