I rolled over and completed my morning stretch. The first thing I reached for, as I always do, was my iPhone. I went through my morning ritual of checking emails and text messages and then making my rounds through social media. My notifications on Facebook indicated that a message was left in the early morning hours. It was as follows: “AIDS helped me lose 35lbs.”
It took me a moment to process it as I read the screen. Clearly, I must have been reading this notification wrong since it stated that this Facebook status had been posted by a friend. This is not a friend I had never met, who existed only in the imaginary world of Facebook-land; he is an actual friend. An actual friend had posted an ignorant line from the popular cartoon South Park on my Facebook wall. He did know that I am an international HIV/AIDS activist, blogger, radio show host, and above all else, a person living with HIV, right?
I quickly read through the responses, and most denounced the message. There were comments from people living with HIV, those who had lost loved ones to AIDS-related illnesses, and friends of mine simply coming to my defense. Soon after it all started, the original poster replied that he had been extremely intoxicated and was very apologetic about posting it.
Still, it made me wonder, Is AIDS funny? Have we reached a point in our culture where the death of millions of people is funny? Is AIDS nothing more than a punch line to a joke that is told at parties?
I do not believe the person who posted this comment had malicious intent. He was simply regurgitating things he had heard on television. AIDS, if mentioned in mainstream media these days, is nothing more than a sound bite far removed from the tragedy that befell our nation and the world. It seems as if the millions who have died and continue to die globally fade, without a thought from the rest of us about their pain or suffering. We simply step over their bodies as we march on. As medications have improved and people with HIV can live longer, the need to view AIDS in a serious light has decreased, or so some might believe.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 50,000 new HIV infections in the United States last year, with the largest group being African-American and Latino youth ages 13-24. Globally there are approximately 2.5 million new HIV infections every year, with 50,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. I suppose that I fail to see the humor in these statistics.
For the first time during this decades-long pandemic, we are equipped with new prevention tools such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a drug regimen that, when taken as prescribed by HIV-negative people, reduces the risk of contracting HIV by as much as 90 percent. Studies are currently under way to evaluate efficacy when doses are missed, but initial data suggests that PrEP provides a 30 to 50 percent reduction in risk when doses are missed. Not to mention that another study, on a strategy dubbed “treatment as prevention,” that suppression of HIV through antiretroviral drugs reduced the chance of a positive person transmitting it by 96 percent.
Instead of AIDS service organizations and providers working together to get the message out about this new prevention tool there is infighting. One of the largest AIDS service organizations, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has made it a mission to disregard this new science and instead stick with a condom-only prevention strategy perpetuated by its president, Michael Weinstein. Is a shift at hand, though? The Los Angeles-based Impulse Group has made a great effort to bring PrEP and other important matters to public attention. But will the message be lost since it is affiliated with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation?
Nonetheless, the need for credit and accolades trump the task at hand. As we fight each other, the next generation of HIV patients is being born and spoon-fed the belief that “AIDS is funny.”
AARON M. LAXTON is an activist and YouTube blogger at My HIV Journey.