Joyce Mitchell is president and co-founder of the nonprofit organization Capital City AIDS Fund, a collaborative effort that brings together HIV/AIDS nonprofits in northern California. Joyce previously served on the Board of Directors of the Sacramento AIDS Foundation and CARES (Center for AIDS Research and Educational Services). Joyce has produced several documentaries about HIV/AIDS, including the Emmy-winning Gift of Life, a program about HIV/AIDS comprehensive care facilities in the U.S.

World AIDS Day 2014

No Time to Be Complacent; Survivors Face New Challenges

December 2014

BY JOYCE MITCHELL

Looking back, it’s painful for many of us who lived and lost during the early years of HIV/AIDS.

Faces impossible to forget: Cara, the two-year-old baby I held in my arms after she died. My good friend Tom who I talked with every morning at 7 am. And Cheech. An honor to sit with him in cold silence. The memories make me cry to this day.

Wiping away tears, I acknowledge. Salute. Admire. And love. People living with HIV/AIDS are and have been, and always will be, heroes. They’ve pioneered and continue to do so. The canvas is ever changing.  I’d like to paint an entirely enlightened and advanced scenario. But I cannot.

Truth be told, while people infected with HIV are living longer and healthier lives, there’s no avoiding the fact that there’s still no cure. Medications transformed the pandemic two decades ago by increasing life expectancy. But we’re faced with yet another era of challenges.

As people grow older, HIV and the antiretroviral medications are raising alerts. Though viral loads can be reduced to undetectable, the virus still lingers. We’re learning that the lingering virus coupled with medications may lead to inflammation, early heart disease, and cancer. The unknowns are vast.

Those of us on the frontlines for years have been screaming from the rooftops that HIV is 100 percent preventable. But an unsettling complacency has taken hold. The misperception that the medications will keep you safe for life has become conventional wisdom. That is dangerous.

The medications have kept people alive and we’re forever grateful. Testing, knowing your status, and getting treatment remain imperative. Still, prevention is number one in our arsenal. Education must be revved up. Cases of HIV among gay and bisexual men have DOUBLED in the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Among women and people ages 35 to 44, prevention efforts have dropped the rate of new infections by 33 percent the past ten years. But the twofold increase in young bisexual and gay men ages 13 to 24 means our youth are not getting the message.

As board president of an HIV/AIDS nonprofit, Capital City AIDS Fund in Sacramento, California, we’re reaching out to young people via a community college health education program. CCAF has taken on six student interns.

This World AIDS Day, our interns will be taking free condoms and red ribbons to their campus. They possess passion. Yet somewhat surprising, the students didn’t know about the AIDS Red Ribbon. We shared with them that the red ribbon was so well embraced at one time that it inspired the dozens of other colored ribbons we see today.

The original instructions were to “cut the red ribbon in 6 inch length, then fold at the top into an inverted ‘V’ shape. Use a safety pin to attach to clothing.” Our students now wear red ribbons. A reminder of where we’ve been and where we are today. This World AIDS Day, make a red ribbon and wear it.

The ravaged faces of human suffering and despair of years past—they’re impossible for many of us to forget. They give us each a responsibility to teach and educate.

This World AIDS Day: a red ribbon, a lit candle, a moment of silence. Together, we’re re-igniting the fight to educate youth and help prevent new HIV infections.

Joyce Mitchell can be reached at joycem2@surewest.net

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