Thursday, February 24, 2005

Stark Images and Complacency

A few weeks ago, I was preparing for an interview with the film crew of 1 Giant Leap for their new film, 2sides2everything. Not being sure at the time just what angle they wished to tackle about my life in the world of HIV/AIDS, I had made notes about the impact of the disease on our lives. I thought that perhaps they would want me to deliver a few statistics about the disease, so I found myself with my calculator one evening while watching the ever-more frightening news about the recent Indian Ocean tsunami.

In an online discussion about the tragedy in Asia and Africa, it became apparent to me that there was a sense of urgency that we developed about this disaster, and that the same sense of urgency is no longer there for the AIDS crisis. We have become complacent about the disease, but it continues unabated in many parts of the world. I decided to try to draw up a comparison of the disease to the natural disaster to give an idea of comparative scope. I am no statistician, by any stretch of the imagination, so these simple numerical comparisons and conversions are not meant to stand up to scientific rigor, only to make a point.

Just as we all now live in a world that includes the reality of the possibility of tsunamis, simply by virtue of living in the world today, we are all living with HIV/AIDS. We have a vivid image of the muddy, debris-filled waters rushing through Banda Aceh, but we have forgotten Rock Hudson’s plane sitting on the tarmac in Paris, or the stories of how Ryan White was forced from one school to another by fearful parents and school-room bullies. We saw the bodies in make-shift morgues speedily organized to handle this natural disaster. We have forgotten the purple lesions of our long departed victims of AIDS and the acres of quilt panels constructed in memory of those who died.

We saw the way in which the tsunami affected everyone in its path, without regard to race, gender, status in life, nationality or political leanings: if you were in the path of the water, it was likely to wash you away, unless you could find something solid to which to cling. As I write this, HIV is rushing into many parts of our societies with greater impact than a tsunami…..only its effects are not as visible. We need something to keep people from being swept away. We need some stark imagery to get us off our asses.

I haven’t heard a recent count of the number of deaths from the tsunami, but it was climbing steadily toward a quarter of a million people, so I will take that number, even if it is a bit off. Since 1981, the number of people who have died from AIDS is 29 million. There are additionally around 42 million of us living with HIV/AIDS throughout the world, many without hope of access to medication. If you assume that all of these people will have died from AIDS by the year 2025, then we can start to get a comparative scope.

First off, 71 million people, in this rough example (excluding the possibility of cure or feasibility of treatment for all people on earth), will have died in the 44 years between 1981 and 2025. That amounts to 1.614 million people each year or about 4,421 people per day for 44 years. If you take the death toll from the tsunami and divide it by the number of days in a year, it amounts to about 685 deaths/day for one year. In the course of a year, then, the AIDS crisis would be killing roughly 6.5 times as many people as the tsunami. Over the span of the 44 years of the disease, that amounts to a death toll 284 times as high as the number of people swept away in the tsunami.

If you consider that there are many, many cities in the world with populations of about 250,000 people, you could imagine that the equivalent of a medium-sized city was wiped away by the tsunamis. That number of deaths is roughly equivalent to the number of people killed in the Allied bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden combined. The number of deaths from AIDS, though, over that 44 year period, is going to exceed the current populations of many Western countries, and represents the loss of something approaching one fourth of the current US population!

For any of you who lost loved-ones in the tsunami, please know that I am very conscious of your loss and the importance of each and every life that I know to be so precious. I know that the waves wiped out whole families, whole villages, whole segments of society. I am deeply saddened by your loss. I am equally saddened by the loss of millions of people to AIDS.

Why are we complacent about AIDS in the west now? I think there are several reasons. One is that we have been told by the media that the new medications have taken care of the problem for us. Perhaps there was no intent to send out that message, but it was successfully sent. The rate of new infections in the gay male communities in the West is increasing again because of this issue of complacency. I have heard it said that "If I get infected, I will just take a pill, and everything will be ok." People have been told that the drugs are effective, but little has been said about the cost of treatment or of the terrible side-effects that can come along with therapy. AIDS clinicians borrowed a term from oncology and called the combinations of drugs used to treat AIDS a "cocktail". In a general society that sees the term cocktail as an alcoholic drink and not as a combination of chemotherapy agents, the widespread use of this term is a misleading travesty. They should refer to this treatment as ongoing, daily and unending chemotherapy, which is exactly what it is. It is far better to protect yourself than to endure the treatment. No amount of physical pleasure is worth the consequences.

Furthermore, our politicians, bolstered by the views that many victims of this disease deserve their gruesome deaths, are hesitant to do more to combat HIV/AIDS. It would be politically more expedient for them to funnel money into cancer or heart disease or some other, more acceptable disease. Don’t get me wrong, we need more money for the support of people suffering from all diseases. However, if we don’t soon see that HIV has the capacity to mutate and to spread exponentially throughout the population, we will have missed a fine point about how other diseases are less threatening on the whole. Similarly, I have seen some politicians take advantage of the term "innocent children" when supporting programs for AIDS orphans, but won’t touch a program that would prevent the parents from getting sick. There is an implied "sin" involved in contracting AIDS that makes adult victims less appealing to a vote-seeking politician. Perhaps that is why the US Presidential debates revealed that none of our candidates seemed to realize that the fastest growing demographic group of AIDS in the US is African-American women between the ages of 25 and 44.

In Africa, entire segments of societies are dropping out. Missing. Gone. There are countries that are expected to lose most of the middle-aged segment of their society, leaving only orphans and the elderly. Imagine a village where you can’t get bread because the baker is dead, or where you can’t get meat, because the butcher is dead, or where you can’t get an education because the teacher is dead. This disease is spreading throughout these societies without regard to any social status. It is a disease of all people, not a gay disease, or an African disease, or a black or white disease. If you are not taught how to protect yourself, how to use a condom, and how to avoid transmission, you are at risk.

George W. Bush stood before the US Congress and the world and told us he had greatly increased funding to African AIDS relief. To date, the majority of that funding has not been released because of insistence on a clause that only abstinence can be taught as a means of prevention! What good is that? It was, as far as I am concerned, an empty promise.

Equivalent funding in the US has not been made available to the most indigent people in our societies. In North Carolina, for example, you can only qualify for assistance if you live below 125% of poverty level, or making less than $12K/year!

So what kind of imagery does it take to get us off our asses? If a sixty-foot tall wall of water will generate the kind of love and outpouring of care that it did, what can we do to envision the four hundred foot tall wave that is coming at us from the sea of our indifference?



Blogger Frank said...


The main difference between HIV/AIDs and most other diseases and natural disasters is behavior.

I agree that heart disease is directly related to obesity, but we (as a society) don't have much simpathy for the obese. The same can be said for lung cancer and smoking and a variety of other diseases.

Ron, I know you have HIV and I pray you stay healthy until there is a cure. But does your own behavior not have something to do with your condition?

I'm not holding my self apart. For years I have not had a proper diet and exercized enough. I have only recently learned to deal with my stress properly. I'm in good health now, but I will always be vulnerable to heart disease because of my prior behavior.

I do want the research to continue vigously on AIDs as well as everything else the doctors are working on. I don't pretend to know what is the proper perportionment should be, but I'm sure it has much more to do with public opinion and politics then the actual need.

What is the total dollar amount spent on AIDs over the last 30 years?

Keep blogging! I'll keep reading.

2/24/2005 08:47:00 PM  
Blogger Ron Hudson said...

Again, this seems for some to come down to HOW and WHOM one loves as opposed to the fact THAT one loves. If one casts blame on the victims of AIDS because of the way that they contract the illness, that is a kind of judgment and I think we should beware of judging other people when we aren't in their shoes. Besides, AIDS in Africa is primarily transmitted heterosexually and the African-American women who are contracting AIDS are most often getting it from their partners. The example of the poor faithful wife who finds she is having health issues and in the course of a routine health screen, discovers she is HIV+, is all too common.

This issue of "innocent" victims versus "guilty" victims is difficult for me. I contracted AIDS before we knew the cause, but I am a gay man. Does that make me guilty or innocent? Do I deserve a death penalty because I have an illness that was contracted from having gay sex? What if I had been married to a woman who didn't know her status and I contracted it from her in the course of a loving sexual realtionship? Do people still believe that AIDS is a retribution from God for certain behaviors? If that is the case, what is the sin of the child born with HIV or of the hemophiliacs who contracted the disease from transfusions? If we assign funding for disease based on moral issues, then we are ignoring the geometric risk to the whole of society. Another frightening fact: many people who are HIV+ can be completely unaware of their infection for years.

One aspect of separating disease victims by guilt and innocence is the assumption that it will change behavior. We now know that the risk of death is not even enough to change behavior. The reality is, whether one likes it or not, that this disease is here, and that there are people contracting it from drug use and sex. We are decades into a war on drugs that has failed and which continues to fail. Our society has tried to legislate morality about sex, drug use, alcohol use, gambling, etc., for centuries and it seems only to drive the behaviors underground.

So, we can ignore the suffering of 42 million people because we deem them to be sinners or we can rise above our judgment and sense of morality and address the issue of infection for what it is: a disease, caused by a series of closely related mutations of a retrovirus.

As for the total research dollar amount spent on AIDS, I can't answer that question, but I can say this. The need for research into the cause of AIDS has caused advances in the research of other viruses, and in genetic research as well. The cost of AIDS is more in lost human potential, but the gift of AIDS is that it is providing insight into many other disease states.

2/24/2005 09:41:00 PM  
Blogger amy said...

ron, i admire you for your level-headed response to people who seem to crown themselves god, judge, and jury despite their closed minds and blinded eyes.
i imagine you've had years of practice, unfortunately, in deflecting such ridiculous and heartless judgements. you are on one incredibly challenging path, my friend.

2/25/2005 09:12:00 AM  
Blogger Ron Hudson said...

Hi Amy!

Thank you for your kind words and encouragement. I have been fortunate not to encounter a lot of bias in my life. My friends, family and even most co-workers have all been extremely supportive of me and those whom I love. There have been exceptions, but I have learned that it is better to try to educate with a level head than to try to beat them over their heads with my emotional rants.

I don't necessarily agree with everyone, but I recognize their right to feel and think and say what they believe. That anyone sees me as a deserving victim of my disease is sad to me and it hurts me to my core that I am unable to convince them otherwise. It does not and hopefully will not stop me from trying. I know my own heart: it is free and happy and learning not to judge back in return. I have to look at us all as here to learn, and I am learning from this as much as I hope to teach from it.

2/25/2005 02:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw your post listed over at Hogg's Blog and had to visit. I admire your work as an AIDS activist and am so pleased that you have been able to beat the disease to this point since you say you have been positive since before the cause was known. You have been dealing with this disease for a very long time since it was pretty well surmized that HIV was transmitted via body fluids since the late 80's.

My brother Frank was not so fortunate. After a bad decision to move to LA in 1978 where he frequented bath houses and came to be addicited to injectable crystal meth he was likely to have been one of the very early infected HIV cases.

My family does not know this is where he got the disease, but after moving back to NC after only six months and a severe illness (hepatitis; read dirty needle and his first bought with viral pneumonia) had a series of strange "blood related diseases" in the early 80's.

Frank couldn't handle small town America and wanted me as a younger brother to not have to defend his honor as a gay man with my high school friends moved to ALtanta. In Atlanta he was mostly monogamous in a relationship, but percotious in sexual relationships (with permission from his partner). Frank very active in the leather scene in Atlanta.

HIV made his very ill even with some of the best physicians working to treat patients in Atlanta. He had to move home in the late 80's. He was ill, but worked and lived, and loved until his passing in 1994. My family lost at last count 32 friends from HIV (see they were our friends not just my brother's friends and they came from all walks of life).

Mom and dad were never the same after treating my brother in a battle that robbed him of his life and his dignity (it is embarassing to a 6'5" man to have his mother have to wipe him after he soiled himself).

My brother's passing started their decline and they both passed in 2000 (both in their 60's). It was too much for them to bear and crushed their vitality. He suffered and they suffered.

Now the point of my sad tale. As you can see, I am not against homosexuals nor homophobic. I am not preaching and think God made HIV to kill all gays. The fact is, we DO KNOW what causes AIDS today. WE DO KNOW that it is from behaviors such as UNPROTECTED SEX (straight, gay, multipartner, swinging, whatever as Frank would say floats you boat). Use protection if you are going to do the wild thing.

WE DO KNOW that doing drugs in any form other than perscribed by a doctor (cigarettes included) IS HARMFUL TO ONES HEALTH ... NO EXCEPTIONS! Sticking a needle in your arm is a sign of an addiction. Putting blow up your nose is a sign of an addiction. GET HELP!

Lastly, I make these comments because I want to state unequivocally WE ARE ALL RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT HAPPENS TO US with regard to this disease. My brother made some bad decisions and he paid with his life and I submit took my parents with him. HE WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR HIS ACTIONS! HE MADE DECISIONS and they truely did know what was killing gay men in California in the early days.

HIV is not a gay disease today. It is a disease of poor discisions...


3/06/2005 09:02:00 AM  
Blogger Ron Hudson said...

To Anonymous:

I just found your comment in mid May. Sorry I haven't been back to see it till now.

I couldn't agree with you more about the decisions that people make today that lead to mortality and impact on others. However, in the early 1980s, we did not know what caused AIDS. We only knew that our gay brothers were dying.

If I had known that a condom would have saved my life, just that few millimeters of latex, I would have used on back the. Unfortunately, we did not know. To my mind, that makes me just as much an innocent as a hemophiliac and a child who contracted AIDS from its mother. If someone has a moral issue with homosexuality, that is their baggage, not mine.

Thanks for visiting.

5/20/2005 11:00:00 PM  

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