The AIDS Riddle

/ by Jason Anthony /

Reflections from the front-row of the epidemic

hiv.jpg Credit: José Carlos Pires Pereira

I found out that I contracted HIV about two months ago. I pretty much buck the statistical trend: I’m not a woman of color and I don’t live in sub-Saharan Africa. Adding insult to infection, I once worked for two years as an HIV educator; the words “AIDS is 100% preventable” came out of my mouth so frequently during that time period that it now seems like a bad joke. 

I am from the generation that was supposed to know better.

AIDS was our cultural bogeyman, taking the reins from the specter of the Cold War. But while a Soviet nuclear attack never materialized, AIDS made good on its threat. It killed a generation of my mentors. It trumpeted the failure of the sexual revolution. Worst of all, AIDS made my peers distrustful and scared of one another. Like the energy crisis and the rising tide of environmental depredation, it seemed an indication of how the advances of a modern age could turn around and bite us on the ass.  AIDS was a direct hangover from rapid travel, globalization and the sexual revolution that emancipated gays and women, all things I once thought were unquestionable triumphs.

I know how lucky I am to have access to basic resources. A friend of mine has been working in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the last few years and says that famine will empty sub-Saharan Africa, where two-thirds of the world’s AIDS population lives, before AIDS ever can.  There are simply no young people left to work in the fields.

Since becoming infected, I have had a front-row seat to the American version of the epidemic. The AIDS crisis in the West won’t be going away any time soon. The demographics are shifting as education battles ignorance, but the virus does a far better tactical job than the Soviets did, attacking us where we are most vulnerable. The keystone of the HIV life cycle is the Achilles heel of human intimacy: Mothers give it to infants. Lovers pass it to lovers. I was incredibly stupid to catch it, but stupid for a reason that will continue to topple men and women, wealthy professionals and lowly journalists.

I keep hearing how HIV infection is not the same as it was when it was the subject of high-school graveyard humor. One word people keep saying to me now is “manageable.” If you live in the West, if you’re well off or live in a country that covers your medical care, the disease can be tamed. Though I probably won’t see a cure in my lifetime, I will live longer if I stick to my regimen of fairly toxic drugs and regular hospital visits. If my particular strain hasn’t grown resistant to what modern medicine can throw at it, I can look forward to going off the medicine sometimes, until the virus surges ahead.

But everyone knows this is not a permanent solution.  We can’t keep breeding more resistant strains of HIV.  The final answer for me, and for the 40,000-plus Americans who were infected this year lies either in a cure or death.

Sure, this is no longer the age of Rent, where AIDS is the mawkish, and final, plot resolution. None of my friends have even offered to sew my patch of the AIDS Quilt, the thoughtless numbskulls. But it is the biggest threat of mortality, for me, for my community, for communities of the world at large. Because AIDS is an emblem for suffering and death, it is an immediate call to all of my generation’s resources: of scientific knowledge, of social intervention, of compassion. More than that, it is a call to answer cynicism, to assert that progress is always worthwhile.

Scientists will continue to grapple with HIV for years, searching for vaccines and better treatment options, and on the dim horizon, some kind of cure. Public health workers around the world will earnestly repeat that, “Yes, AIDS is 100% preventable.” But in the meantime, 40 million of us survive, worldwide, as a reminder that the epidemic remains our feet of clay, the crucible that tests everything we’re worth.

Originally published December 1, 2005

Tags disease medicine population

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