IN THE LATE 1980s and early 1990s, I knew very little about HIV/AIDS.
As you might recall, when we first learned of AIDS, it was tagged as a white, gay man’s disease. Then it included all gay men and intravenous drug users and their partners.
That’s about all that I really knew. And, clueless, like many others, I gave in to bad information, misunderstanding and myths — and yes, probably added to the stigma — surrounding the disease.
The most attention I paid to the epidemic was in 1991, when Magic Johnson disclosed that he was HIV-positive. But while that let us know without a shadow of a doubt that no one was immune, fears — some quite silly — still persisted: Was it was safe to be in the same room with someone with AIDS? Or on the same playing field or basketball court? Or, gulp!, hug them?
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The light didn’t go off for me until 1998, when I really sat down and began examining information and data and listening to state health advocates and folks at the SC HIV/AIDS Council. Bambi Sumpter-Gaddist, executive director of the HIV/AIDS Council, was particularly helpful in explaining the truth about the disease as well as why her organization’s work was so critical.
While many of us weren’t paying attention — instead considering ourselves to be unaffected — things had taken a decided turn; complications from HIV/AIDS had begun taking a toll on heterosexuals. It was killing fellow Columbians and South Carolinians who many of us knew, whether gay or straight, black or white. While heterosexual men and women in general were contracting HIV/AIDS at a steady rate in South Carolina, African-Americans — black women in particular — were getting it at a much faster clip than any other group.
A disease we all should have been concerned about long before had made itself all our concern. It was enough to prompt me to further educate myself and begin writing about HIV/AIDS; since 1998, I’ve written dozens of columns and editorials encouraging people to get engaged in the fight, get tested, share their status, contribute to the cause.
I especially stressed that HIV/AIDS had no respect of person, race, age or socio-economic class — and still doesn’t. I began writing, and have continued to, about how HIV/AIDS had become a threat to us all.
In this week in which the nation observed Worlds AIDS Day — on Monday — it’s only fitting to recognize the SC HIV/AIDS council as it comes to the end of a months-long celebration of its 20th year in existence. The council’s celebration, which included Red Ribbon Affair at 701 Whaley on Thursday, concludes this week with a concert Saturday at The Township featuring Will Downing.
As I reflect on how instrumental the council was in helping me become more knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS, I couldn’t help but realize how much of an impact it has had across this community and state. So I take this opportunity to say to the SC HIV/AIDS Council, THANK YOU. Thank you for your tireless — and at times unappreciated — work over the years. I’m sure it hasn’t been easy. Funding hasn’t been all it’s needed to be and support hasn’t always been forthcoming. But the organization has fought on to do what it set out to do. Just as the council schooled me, it has helped educate an untold number of people over the past two decades.
While South Carolina continues to have an unacceptably high rate of HIV and AIDS cases, we are much smarter and much more aware thanks to the HIV/AIDS Council and other organizations, as well as the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. Frankly, many people have avoided contracting the virus that causes AIDS and many who were infected have seen their quality of life improve because of the work of these organizations.
Over the years, the HIV/AIDS Council, which began at a grassroots level, has essentially kept it real, meeting people where they are — whether in church or in the beauty salon or barbershop — in an effort to reach a singular goal: stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.
It has operated under the principle that arming people with information and understanding gives them the power to make good decisions, protect themselves, change their behavior and avoid being infected. It also has been dogged about overcoming the stigma as it relates to HIV/AIDS.
Oh, by the way, I learned that you don’t have to be afraid to be in a room with or touch or hug someone who is HIV-positive. I learned that the shame and mis-education surrounding the disease was as powerful as the disease itself. I learned that straight people, men in particular, must engage the fight against HIV/AIDS if it’s truly to be controlled.
I also learned of how powerful the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS is. It keeps infected neighbors hidden, often distant from their friends and family. People hide it because they're afraid of being rejected. And the fact that many of us still don't know much about AIDS and still fear being around or touching people with AIDS only complicates the matter.
I’m not the only one who’s learned a thing or two. The HIV/AIDS Council’s work got lots of people talking and testing. It got people volunteering and donating. It got people educated and mobilized. Are we there yet? No. Far from it.
Columbia remains in the top 10 among cities in the nation in terms of the rate of AIDS cases. And South Carolina ranks in the top 10 among states. But over the years, we’ve seen the number of HIV/AIDS cases reported annually drop from 1,178 in 1998 to 638 in 2008 to 456 in 2013, according to DHEC figures.
I’m sure the folks at the S.C. HIV/AIDS Council would be the first to say that they’re out to put themselves out of a job. But, unfortunately, it’s much work left to do despite the past 20 years of admirable service. Fortunately, the council is equipped, able and willing to do it.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.