We're taking a break from our usual bossiness and condescension today, but don't worry - it'll be back tomorrow.
In a letter published in the Washington Post this week, Elton John wrote to his friend Ryan White:
Twenty years ago this month, you died of AIDS. I would gladly give my fame and fortune if only I could have one more conversation with you, the friend who changed my life as well as the lives of millions living with HIV. Instead, I have written you this letter."
Elton goes on to describe the world Ryan lived in - one where he was expelled from school and shunned and threatened by his community - and to acknowledge the tremendous difference Ryan made once he became a celebrity. As Elton said:
"When the media heralded you as an "innocent victim" because you had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion, you rejected that label and stood in solidarity with thousands of HIV-positive women and men. You reminded America that all victims of AIDS are innocent.
When you became a celebrity, you embraced the opportunity to educate the nation about the AIDS epidemic, even though your only wish was to live an ordinary life."
And he did. For our readers who were too young in the late 80s to remember, Ryan was on national television, in newspapers, and in front of lawmakers, talking about his experiences as a teenager with HIV and his hopes for the future, both in his own life and for the disease in this country.
As Elton continues to tell Ryan about all the things that have changed about HIV in this country, including the CARE Act that bears his name and how much the disease has changed for children ("Children in America are seldom born with the virus, and they no longer contract it through transfusions"), it is clear how far we've come and what a difference Ryan himself made.
"Ryan, when you were alive, your story sparked a national conversation about AIDS. But despite all the progress in the past 20 years, the dialogue has waned."
Some facts that Elton shares:
- "There are more than 50,000 new infections in the United States each year." From the CDC:
"The release of the first estimates from our nation’s new HIV incidence surveillance system reveal that the HIV epidemic in the United States is—and has been—worse than previously estimated. CDC estimates that 56,300 new HIV infections occurred in the United States in 2006.
Even though the 2006 estimate does not represent an actual increase in the annual number of new infections, but rather, a better way of estimating this number, it is a sobering reminder that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is far from over in this country. A separate CDC historical trend analysis suggests that the number of new HIV infections was never as low as the previous estimate of 40,000 new infections annually and has been roughly stable since the early 2000s." (September 2008)
- "In certain parts of the United States, some poor people with AIDS are still placed on waiting lists to receive treatment." As of December of last year, there are nearly 350 people in nine different states on waiting lists for AIDS Drug Assistance Programs, programs that provide HIV prescriptions for low-income patients who have little or no prescription drug coverage.
- "It would upset you that AIDS is a leading cause of death among African Americans." And not just a leading cause of death. In fact, it is THE leading cause of death for African-American women between the ages of 25 and 44, and the infection rate of those women is growing faster than any other group.
In addition, in November of 2009, the World Heath Organization announced that HIV/AIDS is now the leading cause of disease and death among women of childbearing age (15-44) worldwide. That's huge news, isn't it? Something you'd expect to hear about? Not only was it barely covered in the mainstream media, it was conspicuously absent from the internet and blogs, too. Even a blog like Jezebel, which positions itself as a feminist view of pop culture, fashion and sex, buried this major piece of information. Consider the following: More than 200,000 people in this country don't know their HIV-positive status. Half of new infections are believed to be among people under 25. I don't have specific demographic information, but I've read Jezebel daily for years, and I am aware that their readership skews young - readers in their 20s - and female. And yet, they decided to put this information smack in between two cutesy bits about animals in their links roundup Leftovers. Maybe because Lady Gaga's makeup wasn't involved?
I was going to start this final paragraph by saying that I'm not trying to lecture you, but you know what? I am. (Turns out the bossiness isn't easy to turn off.) We are woefully complacent about HIV, especially in this country, and there is still so much work to do. So get educated, get tested, and stay safe. And if lipstick will help? Have at it.
Smart + Strong
AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families
HIV Testing 101
National HIV and STD Resources