Ten years ago, a revolution in HIV treatment began in the United States. Part of it came in the form of a pill; the other part had no form at all.
When TheBody.com was founded in 1995, the United States had experienced 10 years of rising infection rates, 300,000 deaths, widespread public ignorance and precious little hope.
But by the end of the year, a new type of help was on its way: In December 1995, the first protease inhibitor, saquinavir (Invirase), was approved. Seemingly overnight, everything changed.
The introduction of a second class of drugs -- which ushered in the era of triple-drug therapy -- gave new hope to people whose AZT (Retrovir), 3TC (Epivir) or ddI (Videx) treatment no longer worked. With the addition of another protease inhibitor, indinavir (Crixivan), a few months later, these potent new triple-drug regimens were hitting the virus harder than ever before.
Were we about to witness the transformation of HIV from an almost inevitably fatal disease to a chronic one? At the time, no one even dared imagine it. All anyone wanted was a respite from the dying.
At the same time, a different kind of revolution was brewing on the communication front. It was called the World Wide Web. Many people didn't quite know what to make of it at first, particularly when computer ownership was still very much a luxury. But it soon became apparent that the Web represented a completely new way for people to access information -- and, as importantly, for people with HIV to find support, no matter who they were or where they lived.
It was the perfect medium for the HIV community, and it arrived at a key moment in the epidemic's history. Researchers were on the cusp of developing a new crop of HIV medications, and their understanding of the virus was beginning to grow by leaps and bounds. There was a massive amount of information to pass along, and a dire need to connect with people who, because of fear and stigma, couldn't bring themselves to visit an AIDS organization for help -- or didn't even have an organization in their area to turn to.
From the start, we hoped that TheBody.com Web site would provide a way for everyone who was infected with HIV to take charge of their own health, access the latest information and discover that they were not alone in living with the virus. TheBody.com soon became a hub for the best prevention and treatment educational materials from AIDS organizations around the country, as well as expert advice from leading minds in HIV medicine and support.
And now, here we all are. Although much of the world tragically, and intolerably, remains in straits that in many ways are as desperate as those we once experienced, in the United States, HIV is no longer equated with tombstones and graveyards. We remain frustratingly far from a cure, but we can't help but be thankful for what the last 10 years have brought us: new treatments, more knowledge, longer lives and a virtual venue, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, where anyone can go for answers and help.
Of course, that's not all the last 10 years have brought us. They've also brought us some incredible people -- thousands of them, in fact -- who have dedicated their own lives to ensuring that the lives of people with HIV are as lengthy, healthy and happy as anybody else's. The magic of new HIV medications and the Internet can only do so much; the real wizardry lies in the hard work, optimism and fortitude of these frontline heroes.
TheBody.com's search for HIV Leadership Award nominees found an impressive number of exceptional Americans working tirelessly, and largely unnoticed, to turn back the tide of HIV infections within this country's borders and improve the lives of a steadily increasing number of people with HIV.
The 73 people to whom we have the honor of presenting an HIV Leadership Award are extraordinary. They are men and women; they are straight, gay and transgendered; they hail from a variety of religious, ethnic and geographical backgrounds. And they will continue to be there for America's HIV-positive community until a cure is found and the virus has become little more than a distant memory.
Ten years after TheBody.com's founding, and more than 20 years since HIV made its unwelcome intrusion on our lives, we know that there are far, far more than 73 people who are worthy of these awards. We can only hope that by calling attention to these heroes, we can also shine a spotlight on the dedicated teams of people they toil alongside, and on the thousands upon thousands of incredible people who have committed their lives to one of the most urgent causes of our generation, so that the next 10 years can be a time of greater hope, understanding and progress toward a cure.
We also hope that our HIV Leadership Awards program will attest to the fact that HIV is still a growing problem here at home, requiring the attention of our government, our news media and our society as a whole.
Browse through our interviews with these outstanding people and you'll begin to truly appreciate the remarkable people working on the epidemic's front lines.