Lecture at UCSF: “The Forgotten Epidemic”

Later this month, Arthur J. Ammann, MD will lecture on the history of the “forgotten epidemic” of HIV/AIDS in women and children at UCSF on Thursday, February 26th. An interview with Ammann conducted as part of the San Francisco AIDS Oral History series is available online. If you’re in town, check out the lecture; if not, check out Amman’s interview, along with the others in the series!

MH17 and the Importance of AIDS Conferences

The tragic Malaysia Airlines crash this week, and the news that at least six passengers of the 298 aboard were headed to Melbourne for the International AIDS Conference, has focused the world’s attention on the loss that people with HIV and AIDS around the world will suffer as a result. For some, the crash recalls the untimely death of Jonathan Mann and Mary Lou Clements-Mann aboard SwissAir 111 in 1998. The Manns warned early on of the coming global AIDS epidemic, and framed the spread of HIV as the product of social inequalities, rather than individual behaviors. Had the Manns lived, would global AIDS programs today look any different? Would they address the social conditions underlying the AIDS pandemic, in addition to offering condoms and ARVs? And how will the loss of Dr. Lange and those aboard MH17 shape the future course of the pandemic and our response to it, in ways that we can never know?

Dr. Simon Harris frames this question differently in a letter to The Guardian—why run the risk of gathering so many important minds together in one place, now that we have global communications technology? Can’t these meetings simply be held in the digital realm? Harris writes:

The overall loss of life in the Malaysia Airlines disaster (Report, 18 July) is the primary concern, but a separate issue is raised. Around 100 were scientists going to a conference in Australia. The number of conferences held worldwide is enormous, but is it not time to ask why such trips are necessary. The advent of large-screen TVs and rapid transmission of data and the spoken word mean it is no longer necessary to send thousands of people around the world at great expense often to the public purse (eg the universities) and at major environmental cost. People are already familiar with each other through Skype, telephone, email and the journals and, dare one say it, they are often an excuse to take the family on holiday. Now we have lost a very large number of people expert in the science of Aids. What cost will this be to those suffering from the disease?

For one, access to high-speed data is not the same everywhere; retooling international conferences in such a fashion could very well exclude those on the other side of the “digital divide.” But perhaps more importantly, international AIDS conferences like the one in Melbourne have given AIDS activists from around the world a space in which to meet, exchange ideas, and learn about one another’s struggles. Karen Timour wrote about her experience at the 1996 International AIDS Conference in Vancouver for thebody.com. She described the three-day “Community Forum” for people living with AIDS held before the conference in glowing terms: “The dorm bubbled with intense conversations, disputes and shared humor — living there was like being in the midst of a huge, HIV-positive United Nations.”

But these conferences have not only been uplifting personal experiences for AIDS activists—they helped enlarge the scope of AIDS activism, giving rise to the movement for treatment access in the developing world during the late 1990s and early 2000s. ACT UP Philadelphia was at the forefront of that fight within the United States, as they protested Gore and Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign, demanding that the U.S. government allow countries in the global South to produce cheaper generic versions of HIV drugs, or to buy generics on the global market. Speaking to Salon.com in 2001, Kate Krauss of ACT UP Philadelphia described the “searing experience” of meeting other activists who were dying for lack of treatment. Similarly, in an interview for this project, Waheedah Shabazz-El of ACT UP Philadelphia described her own experience meeting counterparts from the developing world, and the particular struggles they face:

I met a lady from Kenya–I was in Toronto at an International AIDS Conference and I met a lady from Kenya, and she was a village nurse. She went to school at the University of Kenya, but she worked in the small villages, and she gave out medication. And she asked me, “How often do you see a doctor? What kind of access do you have to your doctor?” And I was embarrassed to tell her how much access I have to my doctor. I know my doctor. I have my doctor’s cell phone number. I can see my doctor in the elevator, and if I need a prescription, before we get to the bottom floor, I’ll have the prescription. I have great access to a doctor, and I didn’t want to tell her that, because I knew where this was going. And then she said to me, “I go to the village, and I say to the people, ‘You must take these ARVs because they will save your life.’” She said to me, “What do I do when the people point to their bellies and say that their bellies are empty? What do I do?” She said that they share their medicine because they have to pay. And that they share their medicine, families share, because you have families that are infected, and they share their medicines amongst the family so nobody gets well. [1]

Doctors and scientists are indispensable to the fight against AIDS—no one could argue to the contrary. But international AIDS conferences aren’t only about the researchers. They’re also vital spaces for people living with HIV and AIDS to meet, learn from each other, and become advocates for their counterparts around the world when they go back to their home countries. AIDS is a global phenomenon, and these conferences have been crucial to helping shape the activist consciousness that engendered a global response.

[1] Waheedah Shabazz-El, interview with Dan Royles, June 5, 2012, Philadelphia, PA.

“Surviving and Thriving” at UCSF

Folks in the Bay Area should visit UCSF to check out “Surviving and Thriving,” a traveling exhibit from the National Library of Medicine. Although the exhibit does not specifically focus on African American responses to the epidemic, it does feature the work of some black AIDS activists, including posters from the Brothers Network, a program by the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention (NTFAP). The library also has their own companion exhibit, based on collections from the AIDS History Project in UCSF’s holdings. Many of these deal with agencies founded by and for African Americans with HIV and AIDS, including NTFAP, Bay Area HIV Support and Education Services, and the Multicultural AIDS Resource Center.

Naina Khanna on Tyler Perry

WARNING: Spoilers for Tyler Perry’s Temptation ahead, although if you’re reading this, you probably already know what they are.

When I heard that in his recent film, Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, Tyler Perry gives his female lead HIV as moral punishment for pursuing an affair with a sexy tech mogul while still married to her upstanding, if boring, husband, I resolved to see it as soon as possible, so that I could write about it here. [And a confession of my own: in the interest of camp, I wanted to see Kim Kardashian’s big screen debut.] I’ve been too busy to get to the movies, but Naina Khanna of the Positive Women’s Network–USA has an op-ed at poz.com that probably says everything I could have said, and more. Khanna writes–as an HIV-positive woman of color herself–in damning terms about the violence, both cultural and medical, that Perry’s work does to women of color living with HIV:

For the estimated 300,000 women living with HIV in the United States, Tyler Perry’s Temptation preys on the worst of all that. For this, I charge him with at least 300,000 counts of self-doubt and recrimination, a million moments of fear and hopelessness, hundreds of failures to disclose, countless refused HIV tests, thousands of missed medical appointments, suicides, homicides, and setting us back in our HIV response for over than a decade.

I must confess to never having seen any of Perry’s work, but he is an extremely successful filmmaker as far as the box office is concerned, even as he regularly draws the ire of film and cultural critics alike. At an academic conference at Northwestern, appropriately titled “Madea’s Big Scholarly Roundtable,” black academics picked apart Perry’s work for all of the ways that it reinforces norms of heterosexual patriarchy and conservative Christianity, both of which seem to be on display in Temptation.

No doubt, HIV/AIDS is a serious disease, and one that disproportionately affects African American women. Representations of that reality should do justice to the complexity of HIV-positive women’s lives, struggles, and successes. The disease is not a blunt storytelling instrument of moral condemnation, and using it as such is an insult to the women whose everyday courage proves otherwise.

SEE ALSO:

AV Club’s write-up of “Madea’s Big Scholarly Roundtable”

Positive Women’s Network blog post on Temptation (Waheedah Shabazz-El, a founding member of the group, longtime member of ACT UP Philadelphia, and oral history narrator for this project, is quoted therein)