Oscar win strikes a chord in the fight against HIV-AIDS

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Dallas Buyers Club won big because it told an important story. It might not have been as accurate as some would have liked, but it fit the bill. The friends I have lost would have been moved by the story. The US wasn’t moving as fast as necessary to address an epidemic that would reach the epic proportions AIDS did. So any hero who did anything was a hero, and Matthew McConaughey fit the bill even though critics say his character wasn’t depicted accurately.

Those who survived the AIDS epidemic – who lost their friends – know why this particular story is so important. Many of us grew up fearing the worst, for ourselves and for the people we loved. AIDS was scary. AIDS was a plague. In the 1980’s we were told God handed AIDS down himself as a punishment for being gay, even though we knew both men and women were susceptible to the virus.

Art imitates reality – so they say – and the reality is AIDS was the wickedest death one could face in our lifetimes. AIDS wasn’t only deadly; it was humiliating, stigmatizing and worse than the worst fate imaginable. The most beautiful people who died of AIDS died horrific deaths. They were unrecognizable as they died. People who were killed by HIV often lost everything. They lost their dignity, their youth, their families, their jobs, their homes and often the least bit of compassion one would offer another. Those impacted by AIDS lost humanity.

I worked at the Centers for Disease Control in 1996 and 1997. We knew AZT, the first AIDS drug, wasn’t a long-term solution. In fact, we knew AZT was hurting people , but there was nothing else to offer. We even knew AZT was capable of creating drug-resistant strains; strains so resistant the mid-1990’s “drug cocktail” was rendered worthless to newly diagnosed people.

Those given AZT early on rarely responded to newer drug regimens because the virus already adapted to the first class of drugs. While a few survived once newer classes of drugs came on the market, people given AZT weren’t so lucky. From start to finish, it was a catastrophe. So ordinary people took matters into their own hands.

The art of Dallas Buyers Club is that it captured a reality most want to ignore. When people want to live they don’t avoid the system, they move straight through the system and they change it. The movie may not have been a form of art, but it was a depiction of a time so skewed only the most inspired and compassionate of people did whatever it took to help, heal and hold on to their own lives and the lives of the ones they loved.

HIV, to date, is the most insidious virus we’ve ever encountered. It enters the very cells formed to protect humans from harm. It turns those cells into virus-making factories until those cells die of exhaustion and are no longer capable of protecting people from the most benign of ailments. Thousands, hundreds of thousands of copies of the HIV virus are born from the very cells our bodies produce to protect our bodies from harm.

Matthew McConaughey, Jared LetoJennifer Garner and the team who produced this story showed us a world most people will never remember. They reminded us of people we will never get to know and they reminded us of how the human spirit prevails – no matter how big the obstacle.

Today the story of AIDS is an Oscar winner, especially since we are finally seeing the end of this epidemic in many first-world countries.  But it wasn’t that long ago that the story of AIDS was an American Horror Story, told under our breaths with judgment-laden suggestions perpetuated by bias, bigotry and a convenient undertone contrived to forward some of the ugliest suggestions people could muster.

Art imitates life and life imitates art, so they say. But often art illuminates life. The story of the Dallas Buyers Club is a story which should not be forgotten because the next time we face the unthinkable, it will take heroes who won’t take no for an answer to bridge gaps people would rather ignore.

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