Friday, June 30, 2006

AIDS at 25

It seems lately that HIV/AIDS only seems to make news lately when we have reached some milestone. Last year, it was because the US had reached the 1 million mark, and the fact that Bush's predicted reduction of new cases from 40,000 a year to 20,000 through the abstinence message was dealt a great blow when the new cases reached 60,000. (I could have told him an abstinence only message doesn't work.) This year, HIV/AIDS makes the news as we reach the quarter century mark for the pandemic. A pandemic that has taken the lives of 25 million people, and infects 40 million more. The bird/avian flu gets more press coverage now, and it hasn't killed anywhere near the number. As a HIV/AIDS educator, I feel the need to put in my 2 cents about this anniversary.

I can remember a time before HIV/AIDS, but just barely. My children may never live in a world without it. I don't know anyone that hasn't been affected by it in some way.
We have made progress in these past 25 years. There are now antivirals that have given hope to people with the HIV virus. There are people infected from the start that are still with us today. There are now laws in place that protect the rights of those with HIV/AIDS. We now know for such how the virus is transmitted, and how it affects the immune system. There are possible vaccines and preventive drugs being tested.

Yet, there is still much misconception out there. Because of early media coverage, may of the early theories still remain. Some people still view this as a disease of morality, or a "gay" disease. I've had students in my classes who thought you could get it from a mosquito, or casual contact. I've talked to teens that were under the impression that as long as you don't have intercourse, and only had oral or anal sex, you were okay. My grandmother told me one day that she wouldn't have to worry about getting HIV because she'd "gone through menopause" and "couldn't get pregnant". (Side-note: my grandma has no interest in men or dating, so I'm not worried about her on that front.) My sister-in-law once asked my why they favored condoms. When I told her it was to encourage their use during oral, she was baffled as to why they would be used for such. There is still a long way to go.

Education programs are still our best weapon against the spread of this disease. I find it totally amazing that something so simple and inexpensive can make such a difference in this fight. But it needs to be a complete education plan. Just pushing the message "Don't have sex or do drugs" will not work. The fact that the numbers are still steadily climbing is proof positive of that. It's like trying to get someone to solve an algebraic equation with only part of the formula. It does not compute. You have to talk about protection. You have to talk about safe sex, and using a condom. You have to talk about always using clean sharps whenever injecting drug, legal or not. It's not who you are, it what you do. This is about saving lives. Isn't THAT the most important thing?

To anyone that says teaching young people to properly use a condom is giving them permission to have sex, I present this argument. I know how to use a gun. I was trained to do so, and I qualified as a Sharpshooter, which means I'm a darn good shot. Knowing how to fire a weapon does not mean I am going around shooting people. The only thing I have ever shot are target sheets. But if I even need to use a firearm, I am prepared to do so. The same thing applies to condoms. I have taught my oldest how to properly use one, and she knows it's not permission to get her freak on. Yet, as we all take a stroll down memory lane, I'm sure you remember your teen years. I remember mine, and that's why she knows.

Well, that's my 2 cents. I'll get off my soapbox now.

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