A recent reminder the HIV/AIDS epidemic has not been defeated!

By Gary S. Cox

2015AIDSThe first time I heard any mention of HIV/AIDS was in 1981. I read an article to a friend about a strange new illness that was only affecting gay men. After I read the article, I ignorantly quipped, “There sure are going to be a lot of shocked parents if this disease somehow knows you are gay!” Little did I know this article was the precursor for me to many hospital bedside vigils, nurses in space suits, changing diapers on bed ridden friends, and home visits to take meals to sick friends. Perry, Tom, Jesse, Michael, David … to this day the names and faces still haunt me with “survivors guilt”. This was before effective medications, Project Open Hand or a federally funded AID Atlanta.

Then there was a glimmer of hope. First, there was AZT and eventually the three drug “cocktail” given today as the “standard of care.” The new drugs saved lives. The federal government took HIV/AIDS as a serious health threat. Casework and social services previously provided by friends became the domain of social workers and home health care professional. HIV/AIDS moved from being a death sentence to a chronic illness. The new slogan became, as it is now, “Living with HIV/AIDS.”

Yet, in the past week leading up to World AIDS Day, I faced a sobering reminder that we have not yet won the battle against HIV/AIDS. This revelation came in the form of a telephone call from a friend who is sick from AIDS. His body simply cannot tolerate the drugs needed to keep the virus at bay. It hurts my heart to see him shaking from the neurological complications of taking HIV medications and from HIV/AIDS. His right hand and leg shake uncontrollably like Parkinson’s disease. His neurological condition affects his gait, his ability to grasp thoughts and slurs his speech. While on the telephone with him, I sensed he was on the verge of tears. He had recently moved back to the city to be near Grady’s IDP Clinic and MARTA. He previously lived in Gwinnett County. He could no longer afford to own a car and had given it up. His only income is a $1,200 monthly disability check and a few dollars in food stamps. Like so many gay men in the 1980’s and early ‘90’s, he had no support system other than his friends. His family and his church, both have a problem with him having AIDS and being gay.

During my brief telephone conversation with him, he was choking on his words. He was having an emotional meltdown and in panic-mode. We had previously gotten him signed up for meals with Project Open Hand. He had just called to find out when the meal delivery service would start. He was told there was an administrative mix-up. His meal delivery would not start for another week. He had no money for food. He bemoaned, “Gary, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” panic had taken him over. I responded, “I will be over shortly. I am working on a project I need to finish up. But together, I’m sure we can figure out something.” On the drive over to his house, it was like “déjà vu” – I was back in the 1980’s doing basic care for a sick friend because there was no HIV/AIDS support system yet in place. I picked my friend up. I took him to the nearest Kroger. I said, “Get what you need to get you through the week.” He broke down and cried. This experience was a sobering remembrance, we are a long way from a cure.

I have read numerous articles and listened to the debate on PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis). Some people I know think it is okay to have unprotected sex as long as they are taking PrEP, after all the “effectiveness rate,” according to studies, is 90% to 99% effective in preventing HIV. As for my two cents worth on the subject, PrEP is great as long as it is used in conjunction with safe sex. It should not be used as a “license” to have unprotected sex. I look at my friend and I ask myself, “Just what the hell are young gay men thinking when they think they can take a pill to have unprotected sex!” Like my friend, sometimes the HIV drugs damage you so badly the quality of life becomes questionable. Unprotected sex, regardless of PrEP usage, simply isn’t worth the risk! If you don’t believe this, I will gladly introduce to my friend for a reality check!