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March 26, 2013

Letter: Is AIDS terminology spawning a new crisis?

To the editor:

It seems inconceivable that it was 15 years ago this month that I left my position as the director of the AIDS programs at Health and Education Services.

Yet, even as the gay community has made great strides in its social progress and against the epidemic over the years, in recent years red flags have been going up within the gay men’s community, especially among young men and men of color, that very few of the largely white, well to do, gay and lesbian political leadership of my generation seem to want to talk about.

I am referring to an alarming spike in new HIV infections among young gay men, many of whom were not even born when AIDS first emerged on the scene 32 years ago, and among gay men of color who, for a variety of cultural reasons, remain at significantly higher risk for infection than many of their white counterparts.

Many such men missed out on the highly effective prevention messages that did so much to slow the epidemic in the community back in the 1990s. Funding for prevention programs has also been cut drastically over the last decade and sometimes blunt but effective prevention messages were sacrificed on the altar of “abstinence only” politics in far too many places. But prevention messages began to be undermined beginning in the mid-1990s, when the first truly effective medications against HIV came on line and service providers began talking about the disease as a “manageable, chronic condition,” not unlike diabetes.

I recall voicing my concerns at meetings about such language and the impact it might have on prevention efforts, especially among young people, be they gay or straight, during my final months on the job. Sadly, the evidence is mounting that those concerns were not only not misplaced, they actually underestimated the threat that redefining AIDS would ultimately pose in relation to prevention efforts.

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