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EJAF Founder Believes It's Possible to Find a Cure For AIDS But Stigma is Still a Problem

Written by Chief Editor.

USA Today has published Elton's latest thoughts about the challenge of fighting AIDS. Below is his piece. . . .

 

It has been 30 years since AIDS first surfaced and began decimating communities throughout America. We are now perhaps in the final stretch of the long journey toward a cure. This March, a Mississippi babhy was confirmed as another person potentially cured of HIV. French researchers suggested that 14 patients appear to be functionally cured. Experts are openly debating how close we are to beating the disease.

Lost in this discussion, however, is a sad reality: Science has already given us the means to end this epidemic, but stigma toward those with AIDS has prevented us from doing so.

The reality of the HIV/AIDS epidemic today is that the people who are most at risk for infection and illness have been historically denied quality health care and continue to face systematic discrimination and disenfranchisement. In other words, they are poor people, people of colour, people who are gay, lesbian or transgender, and people who use drugs. The science of medical treatment has progressed significantly — and yet, our attitudes toward these communities, and our treatment of them, are preventing society from implementing measures that could essentially eradicate the epidemic.

Make no mistake: Discrimination and intolerance fuel this disease.

We see this plainly in the United States. Many Southern states refuse to expandrefuse to expand Medicaid  insurance, which would provide HIV treatment for the poor, or to support syringe access programs, which are proved to be effective in combating the spread of HIV. It's no wonder that, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, seven of the ten  states with the highest concentration of HIV diagnoses are in the South.

Stigma worldwide

The same destructive stigma is evident around the world, particularly in Eastern Europe, where the HIV epidemic is growing faster than anywhere else. In the Ukraine,  religious groups that believe AIDS is caused by sin treat HIV-positive people with contempt. In major cities such as Kiev, Odessa and Donetsk, more than 100,000 homeless young people are at high risk of infection. Many turn to prostitution to survive; others numb their pain with cheap drugs. As many as 28% are HIV-positive.

Where is the outrage from the international community?

Scientific breakthroughs are exciting indeed. Medical research has already given us treatments that allow HIV-positive adults to live long and healthy lives. They are highly effective in preventing HIV transmission through sex. They prevent the transmission of HIV from infected mothers to their babies during pregnancy and childbirth. In fact, global health experts estimate that it would take just an additional $3 billion to $5 billion per year  to provide lifesaving medicine and proven prevention methods to all those who need it around the world by 2015. That sounds like a lot of money, but it's less than the amount Americans alone spent on pet food last year.

Ignorance, intolerance

Cures don't mean much if they don't reach the people who need them. When families, churches and governments persecute people for who they are and how they became infected, those people don't get tested for HIV. When lifesaving medicines are expensive, when clinics are far, and when doctors are rude (if they will treat patients at all), people delay seeking treatment.

Ignorance, religious intolerance and political grandstanding are preventing us from implementing proven, effective, common-sense prevention methods such as condom distribution, needle exchange programs and comprehensive sexual health education.

The Elton John AIDS Foundation has invested more than $300 million in programs that work with marginalised communities — young gay men, sex workers, people struggling with drug addiction, and those just out of prison — to give them the information and support they need to get the health care they deserve. Governments around the world that are doing the same are seeing a precipitous drop in HIV/AIDS infections.

I hope and pray that science will find a cure for AIDS very soon. But more than a new medical breakthrough, we need a breakthrough in our understanding of what really drives this epidemic, and how our lack of compassion for those suffering from HIV/AIDS is making the epidemic so much worse.

To end AIDS, we need more than a cure — we need compassion.

A similar article, penned by Elton, appears in the New York Times. It is also included here. . . .

The most stigmatised among us are also at highest risk for contracting AIDS. This is not coincidence.

As I write in my book Love is the Cure, AIDS has evolved not only to take advantage of our body’s weaknesses, but also to take advantage of our social weaknesses. Lack of human compassion — a lack of love — is as responsible as the virus itself for thousands of deaths in the United States and millions around the world. That’s why I often say that AIDS might as well be an acronym for “Appalling Indifference to the Disenfranchised in Society.”

Imagine that you’re addicted to heroin. (As someone who was once addicted to drugs, this is not much of a stretch for me.) You don’t have the money for clean needles. Access to clean needles through a needle exchange program would protect you from becoming infected with H.I.V. But too many politicians prefer their “tough on crime” stance to supporting proven public health interventions that would save lives. Congress has prohibited the federal government from funding needle exchange programs.

Imagine that you are a gay teenager in eastern Ukraine. You have to keep your sexuality a secret for fear of getting kicked out of your home or being attacked in public. Pervasive homophobia limits your access to health information, and you dare not ask for an H.I.V. test at your local clinic.
 
Imagine you are one of the two million Americans who are incarcerated. You are H.I.V.-positive — as are about 14 percent of people who enter or exit the U.S. correctional system each year. Who will advocate on your behalf to make sure you get the care you need while you’re in prison and after you’re released? Only in the next year — and only by court order — will the state of Alabama stop its practice of segregating H.I.V.-positive prisoners and forcing them to wear white armbands.

Imagine you are a young woman in South Africa, and you have been raped. This is not an unlikely scenario; a woman in South Africa is raped approximately every 26 seconds. Rape and H.I.V. are so intertwined in South Africa that when a woman is raped by a man between the ages of 25 and 55, there is a one-in-four chance that the rapist is H.I.V.-positive. Stigma and shame are pervasive, leaving many women with few options. Where do you go for support? How do you get treatment?

If we want to end AIDS, we have to accept that everyone living with the condition — no matter who they are, whom they love or how they contracted the virus — deserves our compassion and care. We have to provide prevention services and treatment to all populations affected by H.I.V., without stigma.

Early on during the AIDS crisis, we determined that it was simply unacceptable for babies to be born with H.I.V. So we developed strategies and interventions to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus. The effort worked: Today, in much of the Western world, mother-to-child transmission of H.I.V. is practically nonexistent.

We need to show gay men, sex workers, prisoners, the homeless and drug users that same compassion and urgency of purpose. When we do, our world will not only be AIDS-free, but more just as well.