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Thirty years ago this summer, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta published a brief account of five young men in the Los Angeles area who had been hospitalized for pneumonia. Two had died. It is widely acknowledged that this report—just a few hundred words long in a weekly CDC newsletter—was the first time scientists had identified AIDS, a term that wouldn’t be coined for another year. Since 1981 the disease has killed 594,496 Americans—almost one and a half times the population of the city of Atlanta.
When I went away to college in 1989, the AIDS scare was at its peak. Signs on campus urged free and confidential testing. Others warned that there was no such thing as “safe” sex, not with a disease that didn’t seem to discriminate. The signs declaring that the disease was divine retribution got defaced pretty quickly. Still, by the time Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he was HIV-positive, the message was clear: Gay, straight, it didn’t matter—to have sex was to play Russian roulette.
What a difference a couple of decades makes. If the pendulum of public awareness edged dangerously close to paranoia twenty years ago, it’s now swung back into complacency today. To the generation that’s come of age in the twenty-first century, AIDS may seem almost invisible. HIV is an infection that medicine can manage, right? Look at Magic Johnson. It’s been twenty years, and he’s still around. How bad can the infection be?
In this month’s edition, writer at large Justin Heckert spent time with a woman named Marianne Swanson, whose history with the disease is both professional and deeply personal. She can tell you that the disease has not gone anywhere in this new century. It is very much here. It is in Fulton County, where 5,629 new cases of HIV were reported between 2000 and 2008. It is in DeKalb County, where 3,269 new cases were reported in the same period. According to the CDC, one in sixteen black men will be diagnosed with HIV sometime in their life. Equally alarming? The CDC figures that one out of every five people in America who are HIV-positive don’t even know it.
No, HIV has not gone anywhere. For people like Marianne Swanson, it will always be here. Her story is one of hope and love, but also one of reality.