BY Bob Adams
November 20 2009 11:00 AM ET
There are heroes -- even superheroes, as you will see -- in any movement. Most of the time, though, historical figures receive the accolades because, well, let's face it, what they accomplished was so legendary. But there are heroes on the HIV front who work among us today, exerting their influence and wielding power. For this issue of HIV Plus, which closes out the "aughties," the 2000-2009 decade, in which many of our country's AIDS service organizations reached their 25-year service mark, we honor these modern-day wonders.
We've partnered with AIDS Project Los Angeles, currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, to pay homage to 25 LGBT leaders who are actively involved in making sure that the fact that HIV continues to have a disproportionate impact on gay men is not overlooked. To many experts in the field, data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed their impressions that a "second wave" of the AIDS epidemic in gay America is under way. And now, with men of color and not just people who were once affected by what was disparagingly called the "gay, white disease" making up a majority of the newly diagnosed cases, this attention to the virus's reach is desperately needed.
We realize, of course, that by no means are there only 25 LGBT leaders who are creating the breakthroughs and the messages that are keeping the momentum of the movement going. Many are less public in their efforts; some probably don't even themselves yet realize the mission they've embarked on. We salute them all just as much. And as their fight continues, or begins, we hope that you too will give a salute to these women and men who we honor here -- as well as their magnificent predecessors, who set examples of almost superhuman feats.
Peter Anton, MD
One hears a lot about the role that blood plays in HIV disease: blood-based viral loads, antibodies in the blood to the virus, and so on. But Peter Anton says there's a part of the body that's more vulnerable to HIV's cellular attack-the gastrointestinal tract, or gut. "The intestine, which holds 60% to 80% of the body's immune system cells, is where HIV first goes after infection.
Studies have shown that within seven to 21 days after infection, HIV has depleted the CD4 cells in the gut while the same cells in the blood and lymph nodes are still not affected," explains Anton, who is director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Center for HIV Prevention Research.
In addition to working to better understand HIV's impact on the GI tract to uncover avenues toward new vaccines or treatments, Anton also is focusing on the role of the gut in direct HIV prevention, which is where infections occur through anal sex.
"This is important not only for men but for women too. Studies have shown women worldwide have a lot of rectal sex," he says. "So you can do all the HIV outreach possible about using condoms for vaginal sex, but if we don't start making people more aware that the rectum is the number 1 compartment in the body for HIV infection, we'll still be seeing high infection rates."
George Ayala is fighting hard to reverse one of the AIDS pandemic's most dangerous disparities. Although the group hit hardest by HIV in much of the world is men who have sex with men, less than 2% of global HIV funding is directed toward them.
"In more than 90 countries there's no data at all on gay men; it's like they don't exist," says Ayala, executive officer of the Global Forum on MSM and HIV.
To help establish services for MSM, the organization crafted a three-year action plan this summer to raise funds and assist groups around the world-from local programs in hard-hit towns to large-scale international outreach efforts. "The plan leverages our strengths in network development, information exchange, education, and advocacy to bolster the health and human rights of MSM globally," he says. "It's not going to be easy, but we're ready to roll our sleeves up and get to work."
A. Cornelius Baker
Cornelius Baker was home from college in 1981 when he heard that a young man he'd idolized in high school was very sick. "To have seen smart, talented people taken away immediately," he recalls, "I just thought, God, you have to do what you have to do, and I have to be involved."
Beyond just involving himself, Baker relinquished his youthful ambitions to work in theater and went on to become executive director of the National Association of People With AIDS and, later, Washington, D.C.'s Whitman-Walker Clinic.
Today, as HIV targets black gay men more prevalently than any other demographic, he is a much-needed leader at both the National Black Gay Men's Advocacy Coalition and the Academy for Educational Development Center on AIDS and Community Health.