Monthly Archives: August 2008

A Little Learning

An oddly deja-vu-all-over again air hung over the Mexico City 2008 AIDS Conference, in the very newness many of the speakers claimed for their ideas.

They said the HIV crisis has reached such a point that:

  • We need to pay attention to research and evidence;
  • We need to match the efforts being belatedly put forth to treat people living with HIV as with efforts to keep more people from being exposed to it;
  • Ergo, we need every nation to make comprehensive, life-saving sexual education available in schools;
  • We need to tackle the structure that feeds the epidemic by repealing discriminatory laws and by promoting unity;
  • We need to promote health care as a human right, not a privilege.
One would think these points had been touched on, seized on before, but apparently not.

More on the latter two next time. My attention has been distracted by Florida’s answer to comprehensive sex education, which I stumbled on while looking for health statistics

The answer is it’s “Great to Wait” for sexual activity — a popular proposition, except for all the people who can’t or don’t want to. Those people, rape and incest victims, teenagers forced to trade sex for survival, people, who as a result of marriage being off-limits to them, would have to wait forever, people who do, in fact, feel ready to experience physical intimacy with others, can go solve their own ensuing problems, apparently.

Those who think it’s “Great to Wait,” can do “Fun Stuff,” that sound almost as much fun as your own funeral, including the “Giving Up” memory game — where kids can see all the great times they’re having now — surfing, playing basketball, playing a ukulele while wearing a Hawiian shirt, riding around in a convertible — that they would give up if they had sex — with the inevitable unwanted pregnancies and diseases that presumably would follow. There is also the “Road of Life” video car game, which is too hard to explain, and seems to end with a crash no matter what you do, and, even more divorced from reality, the “How to say No” game, in which teens can “Click here to learn great responses to some tough situations that you may encounter.”

This one somewhat resembles the much funnier MAD Magazine’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” which, after all, were meant in jest, where as these are seriously offered up as problem solving responses on this site.

This is the opposite of an evidence or research-based response to the perils awaiting what seems likely now to be the next generation of HIV patients. In fact, while research has shown abstinence-only programs to be ineffective, common sense, even memory, for anyone who has ever been a teenager, rather than having been hatched fully formed on another planet, could tell you that Florida’s Abstinence Program, which is found, of all places on the Department of Health website, is a pointless exercise in faith-based bureacracy.

But be assured, that while Florida remains home to some of the highest rates of HIV transmission in the United States, people are getting paid to produce “Great to Wait.”

And Florida is not alone. Most states in the nation place “stressing abstinence” in sexual education over explanations of how sexually transmitteed diseases are spread and what one must do to avoid them if having sex, including learning to negotiate safer sexual practices if necessary.

This is one of the reasons why, whatever other nations do, in two, four, six and eight years from now, when people from around the globe gather to compare notes on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, there will be an odd sense of deja-vu-all-over-again emanating from the nation with the most resources to change things.

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A Moment for AIDS in America

In the 17th century as a plague spread through Europe people learned of its existence only through its death toll, and as cities succumbed, awareness came too late. It arrived that way in London, in the middle of the century, as author Daniel Defoe described 40 years later:

We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things; and to improve them by the Invention of Men, as I have lived to see practised since. But such things as these were gathered from the Letters of Merchants, and others, who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by Word of Mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole Nation, as they do now. But it seems that the Government had a true Account of it, and several Counsels were held about Ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private. Hence it was, that this Rumour died off again, and People began to forget it . . .”  Journal of The Plague Year, 1722

We have newspapers now, and other inventions to spread word, and somehow they have failed during the plague of our time to keep people from forgetting it.

This is the state of the AIDS epidemic in America in the first decade of the 21rst century. Although its toll is greatest here among young people, if you go to high schools you will find young people who don’t know this country has more men, women and children living with the virus that leads to AIDS than any other country in the industrialized world.  You will find untested, unproven, and even methods proven to be ineffective to alert people to the epidemic where any efforts are funded at all.

 And although federal disease trackers have known for nearly a year that the rate of new cases each year is 40 percent higher than previously thought, with every year bringing an estimated 56,000 new infections, that news was not spread until earlier this month.

 The new numbers, tragic in their individual ramifications, were presented to Intenational AIDS Conference attendees in Mexico city as something bordering on good news, in all their power to prompt change:

“This is an important time for us in the United States.  It is a moment in time,” Dr. Kevin Fenton, who heads the HIV division of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control said at a conference session. “There has been a wonderful of confluence of focus, not only on the domestic epidemic in the United States, but the global leadership that the U.S. is providing in HIV prevention.”

He went on to say the numbers should make listeners “pause and think about what they are saying to us in the United States, about where we need to be going with ending this epidemic within our lifetimes.”

The numbers were the  result of an improved technology that allowed data collectors to better estimate the time transmissions had occurred. The significance of the new numbers, aside from their magnitude, and the need they showed for more better education and prevention efforts, was that they would highlight as well where those efforts need to be made.

Three weeks did not pass though, before that news was followed by word that the CDC has discontinued efforts to collect those numbers in eight of the 34 cities and states where those efforts had just yielded the new more accurate picture of the American epidemic, including in  Georgia, home to the eighth highest rate of AIDS in the nation.

And so we are left to wonder, once again, where we need to be going with ending this epidemic within our lifetimes.