Millions of people across the globe will take the time Dec. 1 to remember those who have died from HIV/AIDS, to support those who are living with it, and to raise awareness so that, maybe someday, fewer will have to do either.
It’s World AIDS Day.
In the 30 years AIDS has been in the public eye, much has changed, both on the research forefront and in the public’s perception of the condition.
Most people no longer worry whether AIDS can be transmitted by a mosquito bite or a handshake. They don’t automatically assume an HIV-positive person is gay or an IV drug user.
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In the past three decades, scientists have made leaping strides in creating pharmaceuticals that help keep the virus at bay once a person is infected. The vaccines they’re working on to eradicate AIDS may become commonplace in doctors’ offices.
But when AIDS first entered the scene in the early 1980s, little was known about the disease, and that lack of understanding, at times, led to a public panic.
Diana Rowan remembers. The UNC Charlotte assistant professor of social work has spent her professional career researching the epidemic from a social worker’s view.
This year, her compiled research was published in a 549-page manual for social workers in the field, as well as for those in training in university classrooms.
It was a view that often took Rowan close to the emotional pain of the disease. She watched the stigma of HIV break up families and friendships when people were labeled with the condition.
“It was very difficult, as a social worker, to watch these populations be treated in such a marginalized way, to where their support systems would drop out of the picture for them,” said Rowan. “The social work network actually became their strongest support system.”
There was a lot of abandonment in the early days, not just in relationships, but by the government, some believe.
“If a low-income person received a positive HIV diagnosis and didn’t have the resources to buy their own medications, they were told they had to go on a waiting list until someone either died or forgot to re-register, and a space opened up,” said Rowan.
“That was an extremely frustrating time for social workers serving the HIV community.”
In Mecklenburg County, 4,500 people are living with HIV/AIDS. That’s just less than one new case a day in the county. Each year, between 320 and 370 more people become infected.
Of the new cases in 2010, 76 percent were African-Americans and 77 percent were male. In more than half of cases, the mode of transmission was through men having sex with other men, making that demographic the newest high-risk group.
“All other demographics in the U.S., regarding new cases of HIV, are either holding steady or are dropping, except for young black gay men,” said Rowan. “They have had an increase of nearly 50 percent within the past three years.”
In the past, when AIDS made news for targeting one population over another, advocacy groups from that demographic would rise up for the cause.
In the 1980s, when Caucasian homosexual men were the highest risk group, they formed grassroots organizations to fight for research, education and treatment.
“Now that the epidemic has shifted to more vulnerable populations that don’t have that same kind of political clout,” Rowan said. “In my opinion, we don’t experience the powerful grassroots advocacy that we did in the past.”
Last year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded Rowan a $1.1 million grant to address the new high-risk group.
The Minority AIDS Research Initiative is a Web-based intervention program Rowan has created in conjunction with Carolinas CARE Partnership. It’s intended to address the rising rate of infection among young gay and bisexual African-American men.
This month, MARI launched Statusboiz.com, a social networking site for the demographic to come together as one.
“One of the things we hear from that community is that they don’t feel safe to discuss issues around sexuality with health educators and other peers that aren’t involved in same sex sexuality,” said Rowan.
So far, 283 people have registered on the private site.
Rowan hopes someday the numbers of those infected in this group will decrease, just as other high risk groups of the past have done, and that no new group will emerge to take their place.
“The prospect of an AIDS-free generation should available to all,” said Rowan. “I think we’re moving in the right direction.”