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.

Advertisements

HIV, Black Men & The New Prison Pipeline by Lisa Fager Bediako & Michael Hinson

African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project narrator Michael Hinson and Lisa Fader Bediako argue that HIV criminalization laws constitute a new prison pipeline for black men, on Global Grind.

Global Grind

HIV criminalization

This month (February 7th) marked the sixteenth annual observance of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD).  HIV/AIDS, once considered a “gay white man” disease, is still consistently on the rise in black American communities across the US. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports “of all racial/ethnic groups in the US, blacks have the highest HIV burden and higher proportions of new infections and deaths.” Although improvements in HIV treatment over the last 30 years have transformed HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable, chronic condition, a troubling trend is emerging: HIV criminalization.

Currently, 33 states and two territories have laws criminalizing HIV. HIV criminalization has often resulted in gross human rights violations, including harsh sentencing for behaviors that pose little or no risk of HIV transmission, including: A man with HIV in Texas who is now serving 35 years for spitting at a police…

View original post 710 more words

“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.

22 Years after “The Announcement”

Twenty two years ago today, Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced in a conference at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles that he had tested positive for HIV, and would be retiring immediately from professional basketball.

After Johnson spoke, his doctors answered questions from the press about his medical condition. Note that the diagnosis of ARC (AIDS-related condition) is no longer in use.

The next day, Magic appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show to talk about his diagnosis. He encouraged people to practice safe sex and warned that the virus was spreadly quickly through black communities, but reassured the audience that he was “far from being a homosexual.” Toward the end of the interview, Magic and Arsenio referred obliquely to the rumors that journalists and “germalists” would spread in the weeks, months, and years to come. Magic had been dogged by rumors of bisexuality for years—in gay enclaves like Key West and West Hollywood, some residents reportedly sported t-shirts with the phrase “I love basketball; I had a Magic Johnson.”

A week later, Converse announced “Magic’s Athletes against AIDS,” a new campaign of public service announcements featuring Johnson and his NBA friends. Larry Johnson’s comment that “for a guy like Magic Johnson to get a disease like that… lets us know that this is not a joke” seems cruelly ignorant; by the end of the year, over 150,000 had died of AIDS in the United States alone. Overall, the PSA stressed precisely how different Johnson, an African American paragon of athletic masculinity, seemed from the most common images of people with AIDS—skeletal white gay men wasting away in the hospital or protesting in the street, and to a lesser extent, junkies who had shared needles while desperate for a fix. Kevin Johnson was not alone in thinking that “If Magic Johnson can get the AIDS virus, then anybody can get it.”

The next year, Magic and Arsenio produced a longer “edutainment” video for kids called “TIME OUT: The Truth about HIV, AIDS, and You,” with an early ’90s all-star cast, including Jaleel White, Jasmine Guy, Sinbad, Tom Cruise, Pauly Shore, and a young Neil Patrick Harris.

Last year, ESPN aired The Announcement, a documentary on Johnson’s “bleakest hour,” when he revealed his HIV-positive diagnosis to the world.

A few months later, Johnson was featured prominently in the PBS Frontline documentary Endgame: AIDS in Black America. (see my review of Endgame here) Recently, Hall and Johnson appeared on Access Hollywood to talk about their 1991 interview, as well as the ongoing racial disparities in the epidemic, particularly for African American women.

Thankfully, Johnson, who obviously has access to the best doctors and most effective treatments, remains healthy. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the vast majority of African Americans affected by the epidemic, who progress from HIV infection to AIDS and die faster than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States.

New interactive website: What Obamacare can do for someone with HIV.

AIDS activism and the struggle for universal health care in the United States have often gone hand in hand. ACA is a big step forward for everyone—find out here what it means for people living with HIV and AIDS.

Attitude

obamacare-and-you

HIV positive and wondering about Obamacare? It might seem complicated, but this cool Greater Than AIDS webpage is designed to help those with the virus learn more about their Affordable Care Act options. Check it out and find out what Obamacare can do for you!

View original post