Early in my career as a public health educator in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, we focused a tremendous amount of time on basic HIV education and awareness — AIDS 101. We also did a lot of safer sex education and working with people to identify their possible risk behaviors, helping them understand how they could reduce their risk. It was also a time of incredible urgency in the epidemic; at the AIDS organization where I worked, the case managers had huge client case loads and often had as many as 30 client deaths a month. There were activist demonstrations for care and treatment as well as prevention and impactful, emotional events like Names Project AIDS Quilt displays that showed the loss the country was experiencing in a very real way.
Decades later, as so much has changed such as the work looking at treatment as prevention, there is also so much that is exactly the same. We are at the basic HIV 101 stage with a new generation. CDC’s most recent estimates show that approximately 50,000 Americans become infected with HIV each year. For the first time, we have a National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which lays out three primary goals: reduce the number of people who become infected with HIV, increase access to care and improve health outcomes for people living with HIV, and reduce HIV-related health disparities. The goals of the strategy will not be fully met as long as the country remains complacent about HIV or sees it as someone else’s problem.
I never could have imagined that all these years after I started in HIV prevention I’d be faced with a still growing epidemic and the need to educate my own pre-teen daughters about things like HIV. I also see a critical need for all of us in public health to mentor younger people entering our field and to share things like the history as much as possible.