World AIDS Day 2011

Three generations reflect on the evolution of an epidemic

It is Dec. 1. It is time, again, to mark World AIDS Day. As with winter, soon to follow, one might say that AIDS is an epidemic that came in like a lion and – one hopes, eventually – goes out like lamb. As long as it just goes.

At the first World AIDS Day, 1988, Amari Ice was only a few months old. José Gutierrez was still in Mexico, studying to be a journalist. Pat Hawkins was already a six-year veteran in the fight against the disease.

As the sad marker returns, tens of millions have died. Millions more carry the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) understood to cause AIDS. Millions around the world continue to be infected annually. Far fewer than in years past, however, actually go on to develop AIDS. When the disease was newer, it was evident. In any gay neighborhood, one could find infected men bearing the lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma, suffering from wasting syndrome, or otherwise carrying some likely fatal burden. In 2011, that might seem a world away, with the infection once seen as precursor to soon-to-follow death, now often managed as a chronic disease, routinely undetectable.

The theme of World AIDS Day 2011 reflects that reality. Borrowing from a United Nations campaign, marking World AIDS Day this year means ”Getting to Zero: Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths.” When, exactly, humanity might get to that point is anybody’s guess. That those goals seem even to be in sight, however, makes it clear that Hawkins’s experience with the epidemic is not Gutierrez’s, as his is not Ice’s.

Hawkins, for example, is working with a number of locals in hopes of announcing plans for an AIDS memorial in the District during the AIDS 2012 global conference coming to D.C. in July 2012. Gutierrez, upon reflection, is simply surprised that he’s been working against HIV/AIDS for more than 20 years. Ice, at 23, is confident that the epidemic will soon end and lives with no fear of the disease.

Most importantly, today’s hopefulness in no way diminishes the sacrifices of the past. Rather, it was built upon them. World AIDS Day is a time to honor the former and be grateful for the latter.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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