Forty years ago, the Center for Disease Control released the first report of a disease that would later become known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.
In light of this historical moment, the community relations director of the world’s first HIV/AIDS service organization reflects.
Krishna Stone, 62, volunteered for GMHC, or Gay Men’s Health Crisis, after attending its first annual New York AIDS Walk in 1986. She started working there seven years later.
At the beginning of the epidemic, she saw as friends of hers died of the disease.
“I equate it like a hurricane that comes through a town,” she said. “There’s noise and then this quietness around the time of people dying.”
This historical moment comes at a time when U.S. residents are undergoing vaccinations to prevent another novel disease.
The COVID-19 pandemic has striking parallels with the emergence of HIV/AIDS. The federal government was slow to respond to both health crises, while infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci sounded the alarm.
“The silence was deafening,” said Stone. “AIDS activists fought while the government took time to respond.”
The one difference was the quick emergence of three vaccines against COVID-19. Dr. Fauci recently mentioned in an interview that eradicating AIDS might be possible by 2030, but Stone said there was frustration among fellow activists upon the sudden announcement of authorized COVID vaccines.
“Why is it such a challenge to create a vaccine for HIV or AIDS?” she posited.
Challenges of Today
Today, 1.2 million people live with HIV. Medications are readily available to render the virus undetectable, and the disease is not seen as a death sentence, but stigma remains.
“Stigma has continued to prevail for a number of reasons,” she said. “Transmission is often through sex and drugs. It may occur in prisons, and in people with unstable housing. Issues in different cultures as well as among LGBTQ+ people compound these stigmas.”
There is also an alarming trend in HIV cases among elderly populations. The percentage of HIV cases among 50-plus individuals is now over 50 percent. By 2030, that percentage is projected to increase to 70 percent.
“There is a bizarre myth that they don’t have sex, but they do,” said Stone. “We need to look at that.”
Today is also Long Term Survivors Awareness Day, which recognizes those over 50 living with HIV.
Prevention and education continue to be issues GMHC addresses, with both the elderly and youth.
“More work needs to be done around HIV prevention for youth, because we don’t have enough schools adhering to comprehensive sex education,” she said. “We are missing out on having important discussions around sex in general, including HIV prevention.”
As an organization that started out as a service provider for gay male patients, the group most associated with the disease when it first emerged, GMHC makes LGBTQ+ issues a top priority.
“Parents are still being told it is ok to kick LGBTQ youth out of the home, which puts them at higher risk for HIV,” she said.
Despite these challenges, Stone believes that the epidemic will end in her lifetime.
“We can end the epidemic in our lifetime, but we have to reclaim this issue as a public health crisis,” she said.
For more information on GMHC, visit https://www.gmhc.org