Thursday, December 28, 2006

News: New School Marks 25 Years of AIDS

By Josh Kurp


In celebration of a New York Times story that brought national attention to the AIDS virus twenty-five years ago, The New School held an event dubbed "AIDS + 25" at 55 W. 13th St. on December 1, World AIDS Day. At the event, a panel of, as moderator Henry Scott put it, “five guys and a dame,” discussed the state of AIDS activism in the world today, which much of the panel agreed is non-existent in comparison to in the mid-1980s.

The panel of six individuals all had an expertise in regards to AIDS; some were doctors, some administrators, others activists.

Scott, who looks like a bald, more buff version of Tim Curry, began the evening by citing some alarming statistics. Worldwide, AIDS has now killed 30-million people and another 40-million have been infected with the HIV virus. Half of all AIDS cases today are found in blacks, while the percentage of women among those infected has risen from 8% in 1995 to currently 27%.

On the subject of activism's recent decline, Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist active in HIV/AIDS prevention, spoke about the way it was when AIDS first came into the public eye in the 1980s. "In the 80s, street activism prompted a response from government that was necessary," said Dr. Beyrer.

Adding that people with AIDS are now forced into a "passive role" because "a lot of the battles have won," he pointed out that because AIDS is more treatable now than it was then, there has begun to be, as Boris Powell, program director of Gay Men of African Descent, said, "apathy across the board."

Dr. Liza Solomon, founding member of AIDS Legislative Committee in Maryland, offered some analysis of the apathy Powell spoke about.

There is an "arc to every activism," Solomon said, "and right now, we’re on the downturn," because of what she termed, "HIV/AIDS fatigue."

"The community most affected has least amount of time and energy to fight it," she added.

"White men had forces to come further because of resources, while women and blacks had to go underground," noted Powell, who is African-American, in response.

As the discussion advanced, a sense of aggression against society—at one point, Dr. Jacobs said, "We say HIV-positive instead of HIV-infected"—and especially against the government could be felt among the audience.

Dr. Kent Sepkowitz, a special medical advisor for New York Department of Health, used the phrase "Mission Accomplished" to mock the idea that AIDS has been beaten, as President Bush used it aboard the U.S.S. Lincoln to describe the United States’ "victory" in Iraq in 2003.

But Dr. Sepkowitz did add that "Mayor Bloomberg has been progressive" in the battle against the HIV virus.

"There is a condom distribution shortage in the world," Dr. Beyrer said, slyly alluding to the Bush administration. In the United States, the need for condoms during sex (which, according to statistics, the average American adult male has 58 times a year) is well known. In other countries, learning about condoms and getting access to them is not as easy.

"The United States is currently supplying only three condoms per adult man, per year, to the world," Beyrer said, "which just isn’t enough."

As the talk wound down, Dr. Sepkowitz hoped to break the depressing tone of the discussion. He said that New York City is moving rapidly toward "over-the-counter testing, which will hopefully be available in 18 months."

It was a rare moment of optimism on an otherwise gloomy evening.

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