Monday, December 1, 2008

AIDS Twenty-Five Years Later

Today is “Bloggers unite for World AIDS Day 2008”. We’ve been asked to post something about AIDS. I find this a difficult post to make as I have a very personal experience with it but am not with the freedom to give the details. This is because it happened to a member of my extended marital family. It was the mid-‘80s and this new “plague” was just becoming known. The person who contracted it had been living a double life and his exposure occurred in the other life, the one that I did not even know about until his prognosis was shared. It was a dark secret: a family shame that had been kept hidden as best as possible from the outside world. His decline happened quickly and he was hospitalized for “cancer treatment” but never came out. The hospital was just in the process of setting up protocol on how to deal with these patients. There were large “alert” posters outside his room and everybody entered with latex gloves, several with masks on their face. His immediate family was conflicted: angry, grieved, ashamed. Visits to the hospital were strained. Painful. I did the only thing I could think of. I fed him. Without gloves. I wasn’t at liberty to talk about what was going on. This was still “cancer” for all intensive purposes. Once he was gone the topic was never discussed again, though it impacted everyone. Severely.

Since that time, so many men and women have been diagnosed and died. Some I've known and missed. I've listened to and cried with the loved ones of those. Many others have been diagnosed and receive treatment but there is still no cure. They are forever changed with this life sentence. And then so are we. Almost everyone I know has some personal experience of loss from AIDS. I understand a vaccination has been developed, or is being developed, and so, though not a cure, perhaps an eventual eradication. The disease is rampant in third world countries. In January I will travel to Sudan, where AIDS is more a disease of poverty than a disease of lifestyle like it is here. Since the time I first became aware of AIDS, it is no longer just a disease of lifestyle. It is something that innocent children contract in the womb. It is one more potential “gotcha” that youngsters who feel immune to unwanted pregnancies and STDs are dealing with. It’s one more complication for drug addicts to deal with. It’s added an additional layer of seriousness to this walk we call life; one more thing to gamble with. No doubt it’s caused some of the population to be more careful. Has the number of unwanted pregnancies and reported cases of other STDs gone down?

I remember when I was first touched personally by the existence of AIDS I was thinking “At least they will have a cure for this by the time my children (as yet unborn at that time) are sexually active.” “At least I’m married and don’t have to worry about dealing with that risk.” It’s nearly twenty-five years later. All I’ve learned is how little I know. And how devastating living a double life can be: for those who live them and those who live with those who live them. Be careful out there.

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