I tried to feign disinterest, but it still sucked me in. Every moment proved spellbinding–the languid flow of ruffled dresses, the self-assured actors’ countenance, gleaming bicuspids as wide as my left palm, and all the other vigorous displays of vanity indigenous to the cinema. Last night marked the 85th session of the Academy Awards, thus rendering my homework something to be forgotten for just a little while longer. And despite my non-existent film studies minor, I was certain one production was a shoo-in for the best documentary category and my hopes were high. The gripping documentary How to Survive A Plague chronicled the ascendance of the AIDS epidemic in the United States and the activists whose (sometimes) subversive tactics spurred the research and legislation that ultimately transformed AIDS into a manageable condition.
Unfortunately How to Survive a Plague lost the Oscar, but regardless, the documentary had already achieved its main goal. It forced the United States to recall the dark harrowing journey faced by AIDS patients and activists at a time when the only thing certain was uncertainty. Stemming from the legacy of the people depicted in the film we are now blessed with an arsenal of knowledge, medicine, and financial support for those infected with HIV. So the war is over and HIV/AIDS has been defeated, right? GOD HOW I WISH!
As the years passed the virus forged a new trajectory. In the eighties and early nineties AIDS was primarily a disease to be found in homosexual men, intravenous drug users, sex workers, and isolated cases of blood transfusions. And though still heavily affected, HIV is now most deeply entrenched in the neighborhoods consisting of minority populations and those of low socio-economic status. Shelby County, Tennessee paints an extreme example of this disparity where in 2010 nine out of every ten newly diagnosed cases of HIV were in the African –American population. Now this is difficult to articulate, but I must make it unwaveringly clear that HIV does not make an inquiry to a person about his or her background prior to infection. Nor is there one group of people that is more biologically pre-disposed to acquiring HIV/AIDS. Rather it is a matter of failed social structures that have paved the way for HIV transmission. As awareness reached its zenith with the American middle class in the 1990’s, HIV found refuge in the hollowed husks of communities already rife with social ills. The Southeastern United States in recent years has seen an unprecedented surge of newly infected HIV cases, especially in the impoverished areas of African-Americans and Hispanics. Yet again, it is not the moral failings of these people that has subjected them to this fate. These areas possess the factors most conducive to the virus’s spread. The dearth of sexual education, lack of financial resources, conservative stigma, and many, many other factors all contribute to the thriving presence of HIV/AIDS.
This past semester I interned with the Mid-South AIDS Fund and was astonished on a regular basis by the alarming statistics that are consistently ignored by politicians and our society at large. Here are some more facts and figures for HIV/AIDS in the U.S.
1.) The CDC estimates over 1 million persons over the age of 13 in the U.S. are infected with HIV and more than 200,000 are unaware of their status.
2.) Heterosexuals accounted for 25% of new infections in 2010.
3.)Women accounted for 20% of newly infected with HIV in 2010 and 24% of the total HIV-infected population in 2009.
4.) Blacks and Hispanics both represent less than 20% of the U.S. population but each demographic respectively constituted 44% and 22% of all new HIV cases in 2010.
5.) And since the epidemic began almost 300,000 men who have sex with men with an AIDS diagnosis have died and almost 7,000 in 2009 alone.
I did not intend for this article to be a piece centered on fear mongering. However, I am outraged knowing we have so many resources at our fingertips and the capacity for prevention, and yet the virus continues to rage and affect the lives of thousands of Americans. I am also apprehensive to delve into the hypotheses of environmental determinism, but I would bet the zip codes surrounding Rhodes College have souls who have been, are currently, or will be affected by HIV/AIDS. Would the brave men and women in ACT UP and TAG featured in the documentary How to Survive a Plague want to look back and see us still struggling with HIV/AIDS when we have so much promise? It’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop the acquiescence. And it’s time for all of us to do our part to save our communities from the devastation HIV/AIDS is able to bring. I will end with one glimmering ray of hope—I’m not all doom and gloom! In 2011 and 2012 not a single baby was born with HIV in Shelby Country due to the determination of Memphis hospitals to provide antiretroviral treatment to pregnant HIV-positive women.