Another World AIDS Day has come and gone.
This year was a little different for me. I actually stopped my usual retreat to a dark place in my mind.
The early years of the AIDS epidemic were hellacious, like living in a constant state of tragedy.
In the ’80s, I was in the trenches, working as the health and medical reporter in Miami at WTVJ-TV.
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I remember being part of a team trying to visually document and explain an extraordinary medical disaster that was rolling like an avalanche. AIDS was killing gay men first by the hundreds and soon by the thousands. It was happening as the facts about infection, the spread, and causes just weren’t there.
Neither was hope.
The CDC analyzed and reported AIDS cases from 1981 through 2000. It found a staggering 774,467 people had been reported with AIDS in the United States and 448,060 of these had died. It was heartbreaking.
I was prepared to share an AIDS then-and-now perspective with heavy emphasis on suffering. Two gay elders in our community caused me to change the lead.
These men who lived through the crisis helped me to see that though the AIDS epidemic broke the hearts of many who lived through it, there is too much at stake to linger.
I sat down with John Hammond and Brad Batch at the LGBT Center in Raleigh. They are in their 60s and were in the prime of their lives when the worst of the epidemic hit. Hammond, who lives in Chapel Hill, serves on the LGBT Center board of directors. Batch, a resident of Holly Springs, recently retired from the Social Security Administration.
Neither man suffers any form of amnesia around how things were back in the day. They just developed a different mindset.
Batch says he doesn’t think any of the 20 people he loved and lost would have wanted him to make their deaths a life-time mourning.
“This is going to sound saccharine, sorry,” he said. “When I go to something like World AIDS Day or a memorial, and I think about the people I lost or the people I don’t know who have passed away, I remember them, but I remember the good times. You think about the good times. I think of them as smiling. That’s what you got to do.”
Batch has moved on. Hammond, too. What especially scares him today is a belief that we’re living in a world with a younger generation more and more careless with their health because they never knew anyone who died.
The problem with the millennials is they think, ‘if I have unprotected sex and I get AIDS, there won’t be a problem.’
Hammond says: “They need to take care of themselves and not assume that’s it really easy to treat HIV, so if they happen to get it, it’s not a real problem. It IS a real problem because treatment is expensive, and the sad thing is that the greatest incidence of HIV infections are in the 13 to 29 age group, and they are 65 percent African American.”
That’s also the concern for those confronting these new faces of HIV/AIDS statewide, including Melanie Dubis who serves on the board of directors for the Alliance of AIDS Services.
“They were not born during the time when we did not have the drug cocktails, prevention medications, and all the advances we have today,” Dubis said.
There are many challenges to prevention, I was told. It starts with making educating gay and bisexual men of all ages and colors a priority, giving them the information they need – in terms they understand – to support their health.
Hammond would like to see the LGBT Center sponsor mini-seminars.
“The problem with the millennials is they think, ‘if I have unprotected sex and I get AIDS, there won’t be a problem.’ That’s a belief that needs to be refuted, and that’s what I worry about the most,” he said. “We really ought to get the UNC people over here for a series of seminars on PrEP. The problem is getting their attention.”
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is when people at high risk for HIV take medicines daily to lower the chances of getting infected.
UNC-Chapel Hill houses the N.C. AIDS Training and Education Center, which is working to expand understanding around PREP.
Hammond and Batch opened my eyes. I now see the benefits of pivoting from the pain of the past to engaging in crucial conversations around hope and the present-day work that’s being done to create a world without AIDS.
That’s sage advice for any responsible global citizen commemorating World AIDS Days, and solid marching orders for a journalist who wants to make a difference in the fight.
For more information about PREP and other AIDS treatment advances visit https://www.med.unc.edu/ncaidstraining
You can reach Pam Saulsby at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @pamsaulsby or facebook/pam.saulsby