Guest Commentary

After 30 years of HIV, World AIDS Day—Dec. 1—is more important than ever

World AIDS Day began in 1988 as an opportunity for communities to come together and focus attention on the HIV crisis. Some of us never imagined we'd still be here. Yet here it is—Dec. 1 comes 'round again, and we mark World AIDS Day in the year of the 30th anniversary of HIV.

It's a global event, with commemorations taking place in thousands of cities in more than 100 countries. But it's also a very personal event, commemorating those living with HIV and those we have lost. It's about advocacy and action, honoring and remembering.

On World AIDS Day, we gather together to acknowledge, remember, grieve, support, pray, hope, advocate and love.

It's an important milestone for many of us. On World AIDS Day 17 years ago, the Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network (TIHAN) had its public debut, so this day always causes me to reflect on why we started and how far we've come.

It was a Sunday morning. A young man stood up in church, saying he had AIDS and needed some help. The congregation answered with care and compassion. Some offered to connect him with doctors and case managers; others offered food, transportation and companionship. Some didn't know what AIDS was, but they knew they could help. And they learned.

One person came forward asking for support, and people responded. One church had begun a ministry. Soon, another congregation stepped forward, then others, and an interfaith coalition emerged to offer a compassionate response to the HIV crisis. From one person boldly stepping out of the darkness and having the courage to speak his truth, many compassionate responses have emerged.

TIHAN has now served hundreds of people, activated thousands of volunteers, educated countless people, and modeled a compassionate response.

We're proud to be part of Southern Arizona's coalition of people and groups who work together, each doing our own part to educate and to serve. From the doctors, nurses and pharmacists to the case managers, prevention specialists and support staff, we have a great network of people and programs that constitute a sort of safety net. Still, more is needed.

Since 1981, when HIV first appeared, 25 million people have died from AIDS, and an additional 34 million people are currently living with HIV.

We're making progress. According to the latest United Nations report, the pandemic is leveling off, and the number of people newly infected with HIV each year is unchanged. HIV research is making progress, especially in terms of "treatment as prevention" and pre-exposure prophylaxis.

But huge challenges remain. There's still no cure. No vaccine. Many still cannot access, afford and/or tolerate life-saving medications. There's less public attention. Homophobia and HIV stigma still drive risky behaviors among young gay men. And economic realities are devastating many community-based organizations working on HIV prevention, care and support.

Here in the U.S., where medications are available, people with HIV are living longer, more-productive lives. HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was. The death rates are down. Unfortunately, though, the infection rate remains steady: 50,000 new infections occur every year—many among people younger than 25. New waves of infections sweep through communities of color, run amok (again) among young gay men, and explode into the lives of young women and their children. This is no time to rest.

World AIDS Day provides an opportunity to get active, connect with HIV-positive and HIV-affected people near you, help fight stigma and make a difference.

People right here in our community need you. Share information. Advocate. Support those living with HIV. Raise awareness. Raise funds. Say a prayer. Sew a quilt. Bind the brokenhearted. Organize a benefit. Light a candle. Sponsor an event. Register. Provide a meal. Take someone to the doctor. Encourage HIV testing.

Stand up. Break the silence.

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