Fighting AIDS And Bias

By Diane Hardy
Updated: September 13, 2005

MILWAUKEE, WIS.—When Ryan White died of AIDS in 1990, I felt like I had lost a friend. Ryan was only a year younger than me. The inherent injustice of what he endured in the early days of the AIDS epidemic profoundly touched me.

In 1995, one of my favorite athletes, diver Greg Louganis, announced he had AIDS. A greater understanding and acceptance of people living with HIV/AIDS had developed. Even with full-blown AIDS, there is reason to be optimistic about Louganis’ life expectancy.

A few years ago, a friend confided in me that his mother had HIV. I hadn’t really thought about an older person contracting the virus. It led me to volunteer at the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, the state’s leading organization in the fight against HIV.

I met people with HIV/AIDS from every walk of life. Business people, construction workers, housewives, teenagers, poor and affluent all live with what is probably the most feared diagnosis.

I volunteered for a time with one organization’s AIDS testing vans that move around the city. I saw those hardest hit in our area, like prostitutes and drug addicts. However, I also saw people come in from the suburbs who probably feared being found out in their community.

Some people wondered why I would choose to give time to that disease. It amazed me that 20 years after the first diagnosis in Wisconsin that people would still think people with HIV/AIDS somehow deserve their fate.

The perception remains: A person with AIDS must be gay or an addict or promiscuous; their irresponsible actions led to their infection.

It is true that a vast majority of cases come from unprotected sex or the sharing of used needles. Indeed, these are poor decisions. Behavior is a key factor in contracting the illness. Sadly, sometimes that behavior is a deadly mistake.

But wait . . . .America’s No. 1 killer is heart disease. Diabetes and other weight-related illnesses like hypertension are skyrocketing. Cancer is still an epidemic. We are only beginning to learn how processed foods and pollution affect us.

Every American either struggles with or knows someone who battles obesity, alcohol, smoking, stress or a sedentary lifestyle. While genes can play a part in cancer, heart disease or diabetes, our behavior often is a determining factor.

Doctors universally agree that if we make better choices, we are much more likely to prevent many of these illnesses.

So if there is a direct correlation between so many illnesses and behavior, it disturbs me that AIDS is demonized while sympathy is extended to those who suffer from other diseases.

Even worse, there seems to be a complacency creeping into young people’s minds. Many think that since there are now drugs that control HIV, they needn’t worry. They do not understand the potentially horrible side effects.

The safer-sex hysteria that spread as the AIDS outbreak raged has virtually disappeared. I am continually shocked at young people who don’t realize that oral sex can spread HIV. I am angry that my students do not value their bodies enough to wait to have sex. I am frightened that there are still people who oppose teaching young people to protect themselves if they do choose to have sex.

Nearly ¾ of new HIV cases are in African-American women. The virus is spreading fastest among young minorities.

I was flabbergasted in last fall’s vice presidential debate when Dick Cheney said he did not know of this epidemic. Top officials must pay attention to direct education and services to those who need it to stop the spread of the virus.

Unfortunately, there isn’t space here to discuss how AIDS is ravaging underdeveloped nations across Africa and Asia.

New research is improving medications, and Wisconsin is one of the states at the forefront of providing quality care to those in need.

We can help in the battle against AIDS by volunteering or donating to groups such as ARCW and Banding2Beat AIDS/HIV . The ARCW annual AIDS Walk will be held Sept. 25 at the lakefront.

So lace up your shoes and help fight a killer disease and prejudice.