Remembrance and Change

My return from a talk in Copenhagen on Sunday, Nov. 13, brought me through London’s Heathrow Airport. As our plane descended, the pilot announced that Heathrow, along with pretty much everything across the United Kingdom, was temporarily shutting down at 11 a.m. for Remembrance Day. As part of that day, British citizens pause for two minutes of silence to honor the servicemen and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

It was a very moving moment as a nation ground to a temporary halt—even as we sped through the air at hundreds of miles per hour, it felt like we were still. My fellow passengers, many of them non-Britons, bowed their heads to honor the moment and all that it meant, with only the hum of jet engines piercing the sudden silence in the cabin. It was an extraordinary act of togetherness, one we could all learn from. Remembering bestows a power that not only honors the past and those lost to it, but also gives meaning to our actions today. And remembering together gives us a common purpose and sense of unity.

AIDS Ribbon

And so yesterday, Dec. 1st, was World AIDS Day, which, according to its organizers, is “an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, show their support for people living with HIV and to commemorate people who have died.” The fight against HIV/AIDS goes on, and despite some of the upbeat assessments offered by Bono, among others, on the state of progress against the virus, it continues to kill across the globe.

So we remember that, since the beginning of the epidemic in the early 1980s, AIDS has killed more than 25 million people worldwide, including almost 600,000 Americans.

We remember the 15 million children who have been orphaned by the virus.

We remember that 33 million people currently live with the disease worldwide; 15.9 million are women, and 2.5 million are children. Every year, 2.6 million more people are infected and 1.8 million die. The epidemic is ravaging Sub-Saharan Africa, where 22.5 million are infected and 5% of the adult population is living with HIV/AIDS.

We remember that poverty, race, and gender all are significant risk factors for contracting HIV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2006 and 2009 there were 171,840 new cases of HIV diagnosed in the United States. African Americans accounted for 50% of these new diagnoses, whites 30%, and Latinos 20%.

We remember that despite these awful statistics, progress is being made. Some 2.6 million people worldwide were infected with HIV in 2009. Just 10 years earlier that number was more than 3 million, a more than 20% decrease in new infections. Even sub-Saharan Africa, which has the highest rate of new infections—1.8 million in 2009—has seen a steady decrease in new ones since 2001.

We also remember that the stigma and hatred that defined so much of the early years of the pandemic continues today. Just this week, the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pa., a school dedicated to educating children in “social and financial need,” said it had denied admission to a 13-year-old honors student because of his HIV status. The boy’s family has filed a discrimination lawsuit against the school. University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan dismisses the school’s defense of its outrageous 1980s-like behavior. “The notion that you cannot place a kid who is HIV-positive in a residential school setting because he puts the community at risk is out of step with science, public health, and worst of all, real-world experience,” Caplan wrote in his column.

Communal acts of remembrance, on the other hand, are powerful and drive us to greater things. Yesterday, President Obama announced an increased commitment to funding global antri-retroviral therapy through the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and $50 million more in funding for Ryan White Care clinics and AIDS drug assistance programs. Researchers around the globe continue to push for new cures and treatments, and seek to improve public health prevention efforts. And it is from this force of remembrance and change that we believe we can heal the world and speak of the day, as the President did today, when we will see the end of AIDS.

But we also must remember and honor those who have lost loved ones along the way. I spoke to my friend Ted yesterday about what, if anything, World AIDS Day meant to him. Ted lost his partner of 20 years, Kirk, to AIDS almost 20 years ago. Kirk was just 38 years old when he collapsed on a street in Madrid not long after his diagnosis. He died a few weeks later, on May 9, 1992. They thought they’d grow old together. They didn’t have that chance. Kirk never benefitted from the antiretroviral therapies that have dramatically extended the lives of many HIV/AIDS patients. He died just a few years before they became widely available.

At the end of our conversation, Ted reminded me that for him, every day is World AIDS Day. Every day, with a heavy heart, he remembers his long-gone partner Kirk. And so should we.

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