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AIDS and HIV

AIDS at 37 remains a scourge

Still a major killer, with 1 million dying last year

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Michael Weinstein, is president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

AIDS is about to turn 37—it approaches middle age. Still a major killer—more than one million people died of AIDS last year. But tamed in comparison to its youth: 1.8 million new infections this year, down from three million 10 years ago. Nevertheless, since more people are becoming newly infected than are dying, the epidemic is still growing.

In commemoration of its 30th anniversary, AIDS Healthcare Foundation produced a film, ‘Keeping the Promise.’ Watching archival footage reminds us of just how far we have come in the battle against AIDS and how horrifying those early years were. So, when we “celebrate” World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, there is a lot to be thankful for. A disease having its own “holiday” may seem odd, yet it is more important than ever that we remember everyone we have lost as well as the people who need our help today: the 20 million people who remain untreated for HIV, as well as preventing another generation from becoming infected with this still deadly disease.

As a child of a lower middle-class family, I remember how my father would always talk about living through The Great Depression. As a kid who wanted a toy or a treat of some kind, I really didn’t want to hear about the struggles of my father’s childhood. Likewise, talking to millennials about the ravages of AIDS in the 80s and 90s may leave them cold or even sound like a scold. So, forgive me for saying that AIDS remains one of the defining issues of our time and reminding you that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

A cure or a vaccine for HIV is not yet on the horizon. Despite tens of billions of dollars and decades of work, there is no tangible progress toward a magic bullet that will stop all new infections and rid HIV from the bodies of those who have it. The best news is that people who receive treatment and whose virus is under control are rendered non-infectious to others.

Treatments for HIV have never been better. One pill, once-a-day is now the norm, with lower side effects and toxicities; however, HIV treatment still means taking medication every day for a lifetime. But these lifesaving treatments are still beyond the reach of most people living with HIV in the world. People living in poor countries in many instances must travel long distances, wait for a long time and cannot access the best drugs. At this moment of maximum hope, AIDS is no longer front-page news and donors are cutting back on their funding.

Prevention of HIV hasn’t changed much from the beginning. Yes, there is Truvada for PrEP. But adherence is spotty and the people taking it are not the ones most at risk—youth and men of color. And once again, it is a pill taken every day and there are side effects. Whether we like them or not, condoms remain the best defense against HIV. 

Sometimes we forget that HIV is an STD. It is transmitted the same way that chlamydia or gonorrhea is spread, through the exchange of bodily fluids during sex. The spread of HIV took off in the 80s because we did not heed the warnings about using condoms and reducing the number of sexual partners we had. Today the number of STD cases is exploding. Apps are the digital bathhouses of our time: a closed network of people in a limited geography facilitate the rapid spread of infections. Yet little is being done about STDs at the government or community level. The more STD infections go up, the less funding is available to test and treat them. Community organizations run irresponsible campaigns that urge people to “fuck without fear.”

We are headed over the falls in a barrel. Gonorrhea is becoming resistant to all the current medications to treat it. Syphilis, which was on the verge of elimination in this country, is roaring back. The condom culture that we worked so hard to establish is being destroyed. Just as we did in the 80s, the only way that we can reverse this devastating trend is on a grassroots community basis, which will take courageous leadership.

The LGBTQ community has played a crucial historic role in the war against AIDS. So many of the most important heroes in this battle have come from our community. We understand the devastation of AIDS and also the empowerment that comes from taking action in our own defense. We have many lessons to share with others around the world. Perhaps our most important role is to not allow the world to forget AIDS and to require everyone from our governments, churches, educational institutions, community organizations and society as a whole to keep the promise to not give up the fight against HIV until we have won.

AHF will continue to keep its promise. We are currently treating more than 820,000 patients in 15 states and 39 countries. We will break the one million mark in 50 countries in the foreseeable future. We will continue to partner with anyone, anywhere who shares our commitment to ending AIDS – the scourge of our time.

AIDS and HIV

Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness

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Patrick O'Connell, gay news, Washington Blade
Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

NEW YORK – Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Wards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.

Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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AIDS and HIV

National AIDS Memorial celebrates recent Pedro Zamora Scholars

Named in honor of AIDS educator, activist and reality television pioneer Pedro Zamora

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA. – The National AIDS Memorial is marking National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day by celebrating its most recent Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship recipients, highlighting their work on campus and in their communities. 

The memorial has created a special section on its scholarship website highlighting their work, impact and commitment to social change, particularly around HIV/AIDS, which continues to disproportionately impact young people and communities of color.

This past year, eight scholars were selected from six states across the country, each receiving $5,000 in financial scholarships.  Their studies and work range from mitigating the impact of HIV/AIDS in communities of color and other marginalized communities and supporting mentor programs to reduce homelessness, to helping people navigate the criminal justice system and providing counsel to help people living with HIV through the challenges of Covid-19. 

The scholars include Moses Aina, NYU Tisch, New York; August Clayton, Towson University, Maryland; Caterina Dong, Brown University, Rhode Island; Bo Hwang, UCLA, California; Philip Jones, San Francisco State University, California; Adeleye Mesogboriwon, Edward Waters College, Florida; Brandon Staple, Colorado University, Colorado; Matthew Zheng, Stanford University, California.  Learn more about the scholars here.

“This amazingly talented group of students truly embodies the spirit of Pedro and his work to help reduce stigma, fear and prejudice,” said Annie Wilson, National AIDS Memorial Board Member, who chairs the scholarship selection process, and was a scholarship recipient in 2012. “This scholarship provides a unique opportunity for us to celebrate the ideas and power of young people who are pursuing their educational goals and advancing social change through community service.”

Named in honor of AIDS educator, activist and reality television pioneer Pedro Zamora, the scholarship supports young leaders who carry the torch of activists like Pedro in pursuit of a bold vision that never again will a community be harmed because of fear, silence, discrimination, or stigma. Much like Pedro himself, this scholarship seeks to support young scholars who embody their activism work in ways inspired by their own passions, insights, originality, and conviction.

The program is funded through the generous support of Gilead Sciences.  Since its inception in 2009, the scholarship has been awarded more than 100 students, providing more than $350,000 in financial support for their higher education goals.

“This scholarship supports inspiring students who are leaders on campus and in their communities and are making a tremendous impact on so many important issues around health, social and racial justice,” said John Cunningham, executive director, National AIDS Memorial. “Through the support of partners like Gilead Sciences, this program continues to grow, helping shape the next generation of leaders who carry Pedro’s torch forward.”

Applications for the Fall 2021/Spring 2022 school year are now being accepted.  Learn more about how to apply at www.aidsmemorial.org/scholarships. Applications must be submitted by July 15, 2021.

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AIDS and HIV

New CDC data says people with HIV at high risk for intimate partner violence

There were also significant differences based on gender and sexual identity

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CDC Headquarters building, Atlanta, Georgia (Blade file photo)

ATLANTA, GA. – New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that one in four adults with HIV in the United States has experienced intimate partner violence (IPV), which disproportionately affects women and LGBTQ populations.

Further, people with HIV who experienced IPV in the past 12 months were more likely to engage in behaviors associated with elevated HIV transmission risk, were less likely to be engaged in routine HIV care and more likely to seek emergency care services and have poor HIV clinical outcomes. The findings are reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, published by Elsevier.

Lead Investigator Ansley B. Lemons-Lyn, MPH, and colleagues from the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention and the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in Atlanta, GA, USA, used data from the Medical Monitoring Project, an annual survey used to produce national estimates of sociodemographic, behavioral, and clinical characteristics of adults diagnosed with HIV.

Analysts estimated the prevalence of respondents who had ever experienced IPV and those who experienced IPV within the last 12 months and compared that with sociodemographic information, behavioral characteristics, clinical outcomes, and the use of emergency or inpatient medical services in the past year.

Among individuals with HIV, 26.3 percent had at least one experience of IPV. Significant differences were found by race/ethnicity and age; 35.6 percent of women, 28.9 percent of transgender people, and 23.2 percent of men had experienced IPV.

There were also significant differences based on gender and sexual identity. Although women overall experienced the highest prevalence of IPV, bisexual women experienced the highest proportion (51.5 percent) compared with all gender and sexual identity groups.

Overall, 4.4 percent of people with HIV had experienced IPV in the last 12 months. Statistically significant differences were found by sociodemographic characteristics, such as age and gender/sexual identify but not by race/ethnicity or gender identity.

The study found that compared with individuals with HIV who did not experience IPV in the last 12 months, those who did engaged in riskier behavior such as binge drinking, use of injection drugs, and transactional sex. They were more likely to report not receiving additional needed services.

These findings suggest that screening people with HIV for IPV and linking them to services, not only during HIV testing but also during routine HIV care, is important.

A higher proportion of individuals reporting IPV in the last 12 months were not receiving HIV medical care, were not taking antiretroviral therapy, and were more likely to miss HIV-related medical appointments. They were also more likely to have more than one emergency room visit or hospital admission in the past 12 months.

The study suggests that when IPV is identified, the safety and health of people with HIV can be improved with supportive services. IPV is preventable, especially when efforts begin early. The investigators note that most IPV and protection programs are tailored for heterosexual women. Given the extent to which the study found risk to other gender/sexual identity groups and racial/ethnic minorities, investigators suggest that programming should be tailored for marginalized groups.

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