Remembering HIV’s role in shaping America’s psyche


HIV changed everything. HIV pulled people out of the closet and forced political adversaries to publicly discuss social issues they long avoided. HIV fast-tracked the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) drug approval process, changed the way we think about prevention and treatment of numerous diseases, and broke the bank on what pharmaceutical companies could charge individuals and big governments for their products.

Our approach to confronting AIDS shaped the way we view public health, access to affordable healthcare and government’s role in intervening in the spread of communicable diseases – not to mention government’s role in our everyday lives. Yet, there are still people who are convinced HIV has never directly impacted them. But, from 1990’s Philadelphia to the recently released Dallas Buyer’s Club, real-life illustrations of HIV’s impact on individuals and entire cultures demonstrate otherwise.

This Sunday, December 1st, we will once again observe World AIDS Day. Established in 1988, the event is the first-ever global health awareness day and aims to bring attention to the most destructive pandemic in recorded history — AIDS. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has killed more than 25 million people. Today, 35 million people are living with HIV and estimates suggest more than 25 percent of those individuals don’t even know they’ve contracted the virus.

The story of the U.S.’s response to HIV is one of both profound success and extreme remorse. It’s a saga that illustrates how targeted public health initiatives can overcome the most daunting of environmental challenges, empower citizens to rise up against decades of interminable bureaucratic roadblocks, and pave a path for science to take a lead role on debates concerning the integration of ethics and morality in making and upholding our laws.

It may seem like hyperbole, but HIV’s impact cannot be understated or forgotten because we botched our public response to AIDS from the outset and have been paying for our mistakes in lives and money ever since. We pigeonholed AIDS as a Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), re-purposed the anti-cancer drug AZT into the antiretroviral drug AZT, and stalled drug approval for several medications approved in other countries known to produce positive health outcomes for individuals dying of AIDS.

HIV infects the very cells that evolved to protect humans by forcing immune cells to carry and reproduce HIV itself. The process is diabolical and genius. And therein lies the irony of HIV transmission – HIV causes the body to work against itself by turning human immune cells into HIV virus-making factories until those cells exhaust and die. When you think about it, HIV spreads physiologically in much the same way our political ideals about HIV spread psychologically.

That is why our preconceived notions about HIV and AIDS have always presented a problem in addressing the disease. It’s easier to talk about who is at risk instead of what behaviors put anyone at risk. As a result we’ve avoided the important conversations that could have changed the course of the disease and saved many lives. Each step of the way we’ve gone out of our way to learn lessons that should have been easy to pass on. But, passing this particular political hot potato instead of smashing it has always been more advantageous.

For more than three decades HIV has served as God’s gift to evangelicals, a political gift for elected representatives seeking to ignite discussions on divisive cultural issues, and as a financial gift for pharmaceuticals maintaining a keen eye on profit margins. Meanwhile, HIV eradicated a generation of gay and bisexual men, decimated cultures on several different continents and distorted America’s debate about disease transmission .

HIV impacts all of our lives so long as it is a part of any one of our lives. Our challenge, as it always has been, is to work together so we don’t repeat the mistakes we made yesterday so we can save lives today and tomorrow. Images of our fallen friends are fading away and we are fortunately seeing the end of the darkest hours of AIDS but HIV will always have a place in our shared history because confronting HIV changed the course of history.

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