Today is World AIDS Day - more than 25 years after it had been first 'discovered' amongst gay men in New York and San Francisco, although it is thought that the AIDS virus stretches back to 1930s Africa.
The 1980s were a confusing, difficult and very stigmatizing time for people. Known as a 'gay cancer', HIV and AIDS were never mentioned by the President of the day (until 1986) and saw sufferers evicted from their apartments, fired from their jobs and forced to 'come out' to family members who were not always sympathetic. Certain churches and religions announced that AIDS was a punishment for taking drugs, being gay or being a prostitute.
Hemophiliacs and many who had undergone surgery in the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s had to get tested to see if they contacted the disease and many had - particularly hemophiliacs. Donated blood and plasma is now vigorously tested for the virus.
Scientists and researchers in France and the United States spend the early years trying to locate and identify the virus, create a testing process and introduce different anti-viral drugs to combat the strains that were soon being seen in straight men and women. Some began to help those with HIV but for those with AIDS, it was too late.
HIV is the virus that leads to AIDS. There are several HIV strains as they mutate.
An interesting note is how these scientists in France and the United States battled it out to see which country, and which scientists could be deemed the official discoverers of AIDS and the ensuing treatments. Infighting within the Center of Disease control regarding AIDs was a problem.
And The Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic - written by Randy Shilts, and published in 1987 is probably one of the best non-fiction narratives ever written regarding both the medical and social consequences of AIDS in the early and late 1980s and the movie version is actually very good as well. I highly recommend both. Mr Shilts declined to be tested in the mid 1980s while researching and writing the book - wanting to maintain his objectivity. After the manuscript had been completed, his test came back positive he died from complications of AIDS in 1984.
Today, much of the stigma has been removed from the United States, although it still remains very evident in many religious communities and people living with HIV still find themselves marginalized in our society due to ignorance and fear of a disease that has yet to find a cure.
A troubling resurgence of new HIV diagnoses in gay men and straight women (particularly straight black women) has taken many in the medical community aback. With all we know about preventing HIV, why are we suddenly seeing increased numbers with it? Several factors are to blame: gay men taking ecstasy in clubs (ecstasy has seen it's popularity increase in the last few years) and omitting to use protection, as well as socially perceived straight men having secret sex with other men and transferring HIV to their female partners at home. Another very troublesome factor is teenagers who don't use protection and who are convinced that there will be a cure at some stage of their lives. Seeing people living well with HIV using anti-viral drugs, they have decided that even if they do get the virus, they'll be cured eventually.
Globally, AIDS remains a terrible problem, particularly in sub-Saharan countries and emerging nations like China and India. Government resources are limited and social stigma is tremendous.
Rape used as a weapon in countries like Sierra Leone and Congo, are seeing huge rises in HIV in women and children.
There are also leaders of countries who are AIDS-Deniers, and do not consider HIV and AIDS to be related. They do not believe it can be transmitted through sex or needles and many people in these countries believe that cures from bananas to having sex with a virgin will work.
Currently, about 33 million people are living with HIV worldwide. About one million of them are here in the United States. Many do not know they are carrying the virus and are risking their lives and the lives of others by not getting tested.
For a testing center near you, click here: www.hivtest.org
The science of AIDs is still young. A cure has not been found, nor has an HIV vaccine. But work is progressing in this area and there are ways to keep safe for now: abstinence, condoms, staying away from dirty or used needles (or any kind of street drug that requires a needle), not using club drugs that often lead to risky sexual behaviors, monogamy and regular HIV testing is what we have on offer. By employing some or all of these behaviors, we can effectively eliminate our exposure to this virus. For those raped without condom use, getting to a hospital as quickly as possible can help avoid the trauma of a HIV infection, in addition to the terrible trauma of rape. There are drugs that can be administered quickly, to lesson the risk of an infection.
And for people living with HIV - there are many drug therapies used to combat HIV turning into AIDS and a long life (certainly longer than a couple of decades ago) can be lead if a person is tested and diagnosed early, and adopts a healthy lifestyle, combined with drug therapy under a doctor's care.
We have come a very long way in the past twenty five years and have a long way to go - we can only hope that twenty five years from now, an HIV vaccine will be on offer to anyone who wants it and that the women and children in third world and emerging countries will not have to die because of the weaponry of rape and the lack of care that currently follows.
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