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AIDS at 30: A reality check

June 6, 2011 |  4:48 pm

Sex in the time of AIDS

On the occasion of the 30-year anniversary of identifying AIDS, we’ve been reading personal stories by people whose lives were changed by the disease. Among them is a Sunday Op-Ed by Fenton Johnson, whose partner died from AIDS in 1990. In it, he describes how the epidemic changed his attitude toward sex, made it more significant:

In matters of sexual contact, we need not more knowledge — though, depending on how we use it, more knowledge may be good — but more wisdom. Intimacy imposes considerations of thoughtfulness and compassion. The deaths from AIDS taught me the power inherent in sex and the role of affection and tenderness in human interaction. Consuming others and casting them aside, even if by mutual agreement, is by definition unsafe, for the heart and soul if not for the body.

For Mark Trautwein, who has lived half his life with AIDS, the disease encouraged him to live life.  From a New York Times Op-Ed:

AIDS and I have been together for almost 30 years now. My relationship with AIDS is one of my most enduring ones, and has both enriched and beggared my life. It robbed me of friends and loved ones, and with them memories we would have had and repositories of my own history. It ended a career I loved. It cost me a marriage. My intimacy with health care in America has been costly and exhausting. I know these are small prices to pay for life.

What I’ve gained is precious. Above all, the constant companionship of plague has taught me that life is about living, not cheating death. Fighting disease is required and struggling with life inevitable. But I accept the outcomes now, whatever they are. My disease does not make me special, nor does my survival make me courageous.

On that day I walked from the hospital knowing I had “it,” I was given a great gift: the realization that we all dangle from that most delicate of threads and that the only way to live a life is to love it. 

I haven’t died on schedule, and I’ve been learning not to live life on one either.

Theirs are beautiful stories that show triumph and courage. And indeed, 30 years later, much progress has been made. Timothy Brown was even cured. But it seems like with every advance in the fight against AIDS, new difficulties also arise. A New York Times editorial notes that there is still a long way to go, both financially and logistically, and references UNAIDS as an example of an organization facing big hurdles.  

And then there’s the under-30 generation, who, despite staggering statistics, has a more blasé reaction to the disease that once prompted hysteria. From a June 5 story in the Health section:

Today, the most new infections occur among people under the age of 30, a generation that has never known a time without effective HIV therapy and may not understand the significant health threat HIV poses,” according to Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Transmission rates among gay men, long in decline, have rebounded in recent years as the prominence of safe-sex messages wanes, complacency sets in, and gay youth who have no memory of AIDS' once-deadly grip on their community adopt risky sexual practices.



After 30 years, the AIDS war still rages

Graphic: AIDS at 30 -- Statistics and world map

Timeline: The history of the AIDS epidemic

Libyan parents hope for long-sought answers in HIV mystery

HIV patient Timothy Brown is the boy who lived

-- Julia Gabrick

Illustration: Michael Morgenstern / For The Times

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