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Let's Start the End-Game This World AIDS Day!

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Who would have thought a strange new disease first identified among five gay men at UCLA medical center in 1981 would become the health issue of our time, killing more than 25 million people so far and threatening to destabilize countries around the globe?

I used to have a wall in my house with photos of all my friends who had died from AIDS. A whole wall of pictures of people I knew and loved who had died from AIDS, including my first partner, Chris Brownlie.

I also used to have one of those little black books for telephone numbers. You remember, before smart phones. We used to actually write telephone numbers down in a book with a pen--or a pencil, if he was shady.

When one of my friends would die, I would put the date and a number by his name, and yes until Novella Dudley and Belynda Dunn, it was his name. I stopped counting at 250. That was 1990.

I'm not alone. I know a lot of people who lost as many as me. But whether it was two hundred and fifty, one hundred, ten or only one, each, and every one of us is a living panel on the AIDS quilt of the epidemic.

We Are The Ones We've Been Waiting For

Can you imagine a day when the red ribbon is an artifact of the war on AIDS--a time when HIV is a distant memory, like smallpox or something?

Last year--nearly three decades into the epidemic--President Obama released the first National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States. We have a national strategy today because some of the people who are reading this article believed that it was important to have a national strategy. Some of us challenged the presidential candidates in 2008, and some of us made sure the President kept his promise.

Let's not get it twiste; everything that has happened in the fight against HIV/AIDS has happened because people like us made it happen.

On Thursday, the President is giving a big AIDS speech. I hope he recites the vision of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.

"The United States will become a place where new HIV infections are rare and when they do occur, every person, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or socio-economic circumstance, will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination."

That's an amazing promise.

In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and challenged America to make good on a promissory note signed by Abraham Lincoln 100 years earlier. We cannot wait 100 years to make good on the vision of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. It's time to end the AIDS epidemic in America. Thirty years is enough.

We are at a deciding moment. We have the tools to end the AIDS epidemic in America. We can do more than imagine the end of the epidemic: We can make it happen. We have new diagnostic tools, new surveillance capabilities, new prevention strategies, new treatment options, and a new understanding of how to interrupt acquisition and transmission. The question is no longer can we end AIDS? The question is: Do we have the moral will and the political leadership to do it. Will we use these newly acquired and in some cases primitive tools efficiently, compassionately and effectively?

As President Obama has stated before, "The question is not whether we know what to do, but whether we will do it."

I have reoccurring nightmare. There is a little boy asking a wise old man, "What did you do during the plague years? What did you do when millions of people were dying from AIDS?" I always wake up before the wise old man has a chance to answer. I'm afraid I wake up because I'm afraid of the answer. I'm afraid the answer will be, "Not enough."

I don't know what the President is going to say on Thursday. But I do know what I would like for him to say. I know what 1.2 million Americans living with HIV/AIDS need him to say: We need him to say that our country does have the moral will end the AIDS epidemic. And we need our President to demonstrate the political leadership to get the job done.

Phill Wilson is the president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, the only National HIV/AIDS think tank in the United States focused exclusively on Black people. He can be reached at PhillWilson@BlackAIDS.org

Monday, February 7th, marks the 11th anniversary of Black AIDS Awareness Day, an annual commemoration that calls upon Black people to take action against HIV and AIDS.

Nobel prize winner Andre Gide once said, "Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again." The fact that 30 years into America's AIDS epidemic, HIV/AIDS continues to rage in Black communities and families, suggests that this thought could apply here. According to a 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation study (pdf), 58 percent of Black Americans know someone with HIV/AIDS, and for 38 percent of us, that "someone" is a close personal friend or family member.

But rather than rehash statistics describing the magnitude of the epidemic and its disproportionate impact on Black women, youth, injection drug users and men who have sex with men, I'd like to ask you to think about the people in your life who are at risk of HIV, who are living with the virus or have already died of AIDS.

This week, I'm thinking about my friend Reggie Williams, who passed away 12 years ago on the date that now marks Black AIDS Awareness Day. I used to call Reggie my "brister"--he was both brother and sister to me. He was the person I went to when I needed to talk about my life without having to explain myself. He didn't need a glossary to understand my words when I talked about the difficulty of having a partner living with HIV or the challenges of living with HIV myself because my truth was his truth.

Reggie was a remarkable leader. We co-founded the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention, and he was instrumental in not only raising awareness about the AIDS epidemic among Black gay men, but in sounding the alarm on the AIDS epidemic in the Black community at large. He was one of the first people who understood that if Black gay men and intravenous drug users were dying from HIV, that even if we didn't know it yet, Black women and Black children were dying as well.

Eventually he decided that the stigma and discrimination he faced in the United States was too much, so he moved to the Netherlands instead. There, he demonstrated his skills and passion on the international stage.

Reggie died in Amsterdam in 1999; yet I miss him every day.

I use the memories and lessons I learned from him to get started in the morning and to help me stay focused and keep my eyes on the prize: the end of the AIDS pandemic. Before he died I promised him that I would not stop until this epidemic was over.

So between now and Monday, February 7th, think about someone that you know who has been impacted by the virus--or could be. Trust me, you have a Reggie Williams in your life. There is someone in your world who would benefit by your decision to take a stand.

On the other hand, someone in your life will suffer if you do nothing. Over this coming week, think about that person and do something--action is greater than apathy.

We can end the AIDS epidemic in Black America. But to do so, every day needs to be National Black AIDS Awareness Day.

Yours in the struggle,

Phill   

Phill Wilson is the President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. He can be reached at  PhillWilson@BlackAIDS.org This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or follow him on Twitter @iamphillwilson.



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