AIDS battle goes on

December 01, 2003|By Vincent Kimball Jr.

WE ARE FIGHTING a war against terrorists, but we face a larger one at home and abroad. It is a war on biological/viral terror that we can win through education, compassion and conscious effort.

September 11th is passed and will be remembered next year. Today is World AIDS Day, but it is rarely, if ever, celebrated or remembered because HIV/AIDS is a lonely and seemingly forgotten disease. It once meant certain death for those who contracted it; now it's been moved to the ranks of a chronic medical condition -- one with no cure, but one that is manageable with the right combination of pills and drug cocktails.

The plague seems to be over. No one ever seems to die of AIDS anymore; newspaper obituaries don't mention it as the cause of death. But people die all the same, now of diseases brought on from complications of long-term use of the miraculous medicines that saved people living with HIV/AIDS from the original kinds of death caused by AIDS. Diabetes, neurological complications, liver and kidney failures, heart attacks, strokes and cancer now take the place of AIDS as the stated reason for death.

I have been through four AIDS cocktails, or drug combinations. Three of them failed, meaning that the virus became resistant to one or all of the drugs in the cocktail or that I as the patient couldn't tolerate the side effects. Either way, it means that combination couldn't be repeated and was lost to me.

There are only so many combinations of drugs available to a patient. Each time you fail a combination, it lessens your chances of getting better, or at least staying stable. If you fail too many, there's nothing else to be done and your options for treatment or prognosis is extremely negative. I've been following doctor's orders faithfully since 1997.

I'm thankful, but I've developed complications like the ones mentioned above. To stay healthy and alive, I must become very involved in my treatment. I read lots of articles and know what all the blood tests mean and how to read warning signs inside my body. I am an educated consumer. But not all people with HIV/AIDS are as careful or follow their cocktail treatments. They don't like the side effects or can't tolerate them.

HIV/AIDS affects different people in different ways. An educated public can help to prevent it. And a compassionate public can help those who suffer with it by becoming educated about it, and even lending a hand by offering to become a "buddy" to someone living with it. It doesn't take much time or effort -- just some human warmth and a listening ear. You'd be surprised how adept at healing you can be for some of us just by being around.

If I walked into your midst now, you couldn't tell I that have gone through all this. I would look fairly normal. But the moment I told you, how would you react? Are we as educated about this disease as we once were in the 1980s and 1990s? Or have we forgotten about it? Isn't SARS more of a threat to us?

Unfortunately, we are still in the midst of a pandemic disease that strikes all people -- young and old, poor and rich, gay and straight, black, white, Asian and Hispanic. Maryland ranks 19th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in population, but is the eighth in cumulative numbers of AIDS cases. Its hosts are less than anxious to share their burden with you because of the stigma that is still associated with someone living with it.

When I first revealed my status to friends, co-workers and family, most reacted in silence. They reacted in fear. One supposedly close friend even told me later, "I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing."

People living with HIV/AIDS need your support, not your silence. Compassion should be as contagious. Reach out to us. And we who are living with HIV/AIDS will continue to reach out to you.

There is only one way to eradicate this disease from the face of the earth -- by recognizing it and its victims and lending aid.

Vincent Kimball Jr. is a retired Baltimore City School System educator and lives in Bel Air.

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