AIDS data forces us to face facts

AIDS data forces us to face facts


I had mixed feelings about recent news that HIV infection numbers are way up in the United States.

On one hand, it’s a tragedy that anyone in our affluent, knowledgeable society still suffers from a preventable disease such as HIV/AIDS, but it is good news at least that the virus, which claims thousands of lives here every year, is at least momentarily on the public radar again.

I’ve worked in HIV/AIDS nonprofit care for the past seven years, and in that time, I’ve watched public interest – and subsequently, funding – for domestic HIV care and prevention drop significantly. While AIDS in Africa receives substantial dollars, the care systems here at home continue to weaken.

Meanwhile, those affected most are the poor, who lack access both to prevention education and materials, as well as access to the systems of care which can prolong the life of an HIV-infected individual indefinitely, and improve quality of life to the point that those affected can work, pay taxes and do practically anything else the rest of us take for granted.

The good news is that the recent blip in the media is due to improved testing, rather than a massive spike in infection rates. The bad news is that rates continue to rise among specific demographic groups – some unexpected – such as seniors, young people, heterosexual women, African-Americans and Latinos. There are a couple of reasons why there’s little political muscle behind HIV/AIDS these days, even though half-a-million people currently live with HIV domestically, more than 1 million have died of AIDS and 56,000 new infections emerge annually.

First, those affected most don’t happen to fall among the most politically powerful groups and lack the advocacy mechanisms to keep their needs front-of-mind among those in power.

Second, there’s still a social stigma around HIV/AIDS because it is principally transmitted sexually or though intravenous drug use.

As a result of decreased public support, the front line in the battle against HIV has – perhaps ironically – become our local churches. Though it’s a particularly sensitive subject among historically non-Anglo churches, that’s precisely where the greatest need is.

There’s a recent story about a caseworker who called a church in her community about coming to speak to the congregants about the risks of HIV, along with prevention and care strategies.

The pastor declined, noting defensively that no one in his congregation had the need for such information, and that the message would only scare people unnecessarily.

The case manager thought the pastor’s response was curious, considering one of the church members already was a client of hers.

I’m not a big fan of most messages on church signs, but one local church has had some great ones lately. The first message said that, “Giving with the expectation of something in return isn’t giving; it’s trading.”

The second read: “Charity responds to the need, not just the cause.”

If a church focuses only on the perceived moral implications related to HIV infection, without addressing the present needs of those living with the disease, they are not fulfilling the Gospel call to care for their neighbor.

Along those lines, if they give money or care only with the condition of the recipient conforming to their own value systems, they’re not actually giving, but rather trading, with strings attached.

Though it may be against human nature to give unconditionally to those with whom we have personal differences, it’s precisely the sort of litmus test that helps reveal whether we walk the talk we pay lip service to, all too often.

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