It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since we first learned about that odd-seeming pneumonia that was killing gay men. I remember so well the fear, the images, the unknown that became AIDS. The stigma, alone, was stifling. I remember wearing an Adidas shirt in third grade and classmates making fun of me, saying I had AIDS.
The state of AIDS has changed drastically over the last three decades, and I learned quite a bit about those changes in the feature story I wrote for Vegas Seven, called “Changing Faces.” The disease that was once deadly is now considered chronic. People who are infected live with a litany of drugs, symptoms and side effects—but many of them do, in fact, live. Thanks to retroviral drugs (i.e. “drug cocktails”), their virus loads can get so low that they’re considered “undetectable,” and can’t transmit AIDS during sex.
Thirty years ago, a positive diagnosis meant saying good-bye to friends and family. Now it means having to adjust your life around your disease and make the most of it. Women with AIDS are choosing to have babies, and, when treated effectively before and throughout the pregnancy, those babies are born AIDS-free (I have another story coming out on that soon).
I spoke with a number of Las Vegas activists for the story, and their biggest concern is the apathy of young people towards AIDS. While those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s have a Pavlovian response, a knee-buckling fear of AIDS, the younguns never saw the death and devastation that we did. Instead, they see it as something treatable: Pop a few pills, suffer some side effects and live a long and happy life.
But talk to anyone whose been on those pills, as I did for this story, and the truth couldn’t be further. Joshua Montgomery, 42, takes 22 pills a day. Twenty-two pills a DAY. If he didn’t have insurance, he’d be paying upwards of $2,000 a month for his medication. Even on meds, he suffers from tingling and pain in his hands and feet at night (neuropathy), high blood pressure, extreme water retention and chronic diarrhea. Derek Washington, 48, says he wakes up drenched in sweat each night, and can’t watch anything that might hint at being scary (like a documentary on bats) on television, or he’ll have terrifying dreams.
Still, these two men are lucky–the drugs don’t work for everyone. Antioco Carillo, who leads the Community Counseling Center in Las Vegas, said that the positive pharmaceutical developments have spread a false sense of hope through the community. Many people who are diagnosed with AIDS do still die quickly.
As far as we’ve come in 30 years, there is still a long way to go.