Last Tuesday, I attended the talk “Activism and Resilience During and Since the AIDS Crisis.” Mr. Matthew Burns, Dean of Students at the University of Rochester and a member of the Out Alliance gave the talk. Although this talk was mainly about the history of AIDS and how the disease affected the LGBTQ+ community, Mr. Burns talked about a lot of issues that we have talked about in class.
The talk really opened my mind up to a lot about the history of AIDS that I had never known about before. Mr. Burns has been living with HIV himself since 2011. With the medication available today, his HIV is essentially undetectable and he is able to live a relatively normal life. However, Mr. Burns told us that this was unfortunately not always the case; HIV used to be a death sentence. The disease was originally known as “the gay plague” (Washington, 330). During the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of people died from the disease. During Mr. Burns’ description of the disease, I couldn’t help but picture the skels and stragglers that died in the same proportions in Zone One. However, at least in Zone One the government is working on a cure. For several years, our government knew that thousands of people were dying from the disease but refused to fund research to help prevent and cure it. It wasn’t until kids like Ryan White and Kimberly Bergalis contracted the disease that people actually started researching the disease. Now we have medications that infected individuals like Mr. Burns can take to prevent their HIV from progressing to AIDS. I am of course happy that we have these medications today to fight against such a terrible disease, but I find it extremely sad that the government only started caring when people who were not gay and who did not get the disease from unprotected sex became infected.
Although this talk was mainly focused on the LGBTQ+ community, Mr. Burns also talked about the racial disparities that occurred as a result of the disease. Mr. Burns told us that this is largely due to a lack of information and access to relevant healthcare. In Medical Apartheid, there are many examples of this very issue. For example, although the AIDS death rate declined for white people by 21% by 1997, it had only declined by 2% for African Americans (Washington, 341). Clearly, it is a major issue that such a dramatic discrepancy exists between black and white people. The biggest reason for this gap was due to the price of the drugs. Valerie Papaya Mann, executive director of the AIDS Project of the Easy Bay, described the issues she sees with the disease in San Francisco. The people she works with are “85% African American [and] are still dying and will still die unless there is a loud outcry that says we all should have access to drugs” (Washington, 342). Although programs like the AIDS Drug Assistance Program allotted 200 million dollars to medication to those who could not afford it, it was only half of the cost truly needed (Washington, 342). Even worse, whether or not you could get funding from this program depended on which state you lived in. How is it fair that pharmaceutical companies can profit off of medication that is essential to saving people’s lives? Why do we live in a society where things like the amount of money you have, where you live, and your skin color dictate whether you live or die? Even worse, some doctors refused to give medication to those who were homeless or drug users because they feared that they would not take their medication properly and would thus produce drug resistant strains of the disease. Unfortunately, the people in these lower socioeconomic groups were more likely to be African American than white. Clearly, treatment of the disease was more effective for affluent white people because many aspects of the healthcare system discriminated against low-income people of color.
Although HIV is a much more manageable disease today than it was in the 1980s, there is still a crisis going on today. Africans American and Latino men are still disproportionally developing the disease when compared to white Americans, despite the fact that AIDS therapy costs only $140 a year and is widely available (Washington, 342). One vaccine that was developed was abandoned after researchers discovered that it “only” helped protect African Americans and Asians from contracting HIV (Washington, 344). Although African Americans are still disproportionally affected with HIV when compared to white people, little research is actually being done on studying and treating the disease in African Americans specifically. Clearly, this is not a disease of the past. HIV and AIDS still affects around one million people today in the United States (and the rates are even higher in other countries). I think that more has to be done to spread awareness of this disease and more money needs to be put into research on the disease. Ironically enough, Mr. Burns mentioned during his talk that he could connect anyone interested in HIV/AIDS research. Although we have read extensively about the dangers that African Americans have experienced in medical research, it is still important that people be a part of studies as long as they are ethical, IRB-approved, and consensual. Washington in Medical Apartheid also stressed this point to us – just because there is a negative history surrounding medical research does not mean that it should be completely abandoned. I hope that the future brings us more answers about a disease with a very sad history.