Updated 06/05/2011 04:40 PM
After 30 Years, AIDS Advocates Still Fight Stigma Of Disease
Thirty years since the first cases of AIDS were first reported, more than 60 million people around the globe have been infected with HIV or AIDS and nearly half have died. While therapies have improved dramatically, the stigma of the disease seems to remain the same. NY1's Health reporter Kafi Drexel filed the following report.
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On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control reported the cases of five people in Los Angeles with a rare kind of pneumonia. They were later discovered to have contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Now, more than 33 million people around the world are currently living with the disease, including more than 1.1 million Americans.
Comparing two New Yorkers with HIV -- Kevin Beauchamp, 48, who was infected with HIV over 20 years ago and more recently-infected 25-year-old Jaszi Alejandro -- the physical differences in how their bodies have handled the disease begin to tell part of the story of how medical treatment has progressed.
"Because of the medications I was on, I lost most of my hair, lost my vision. To this day, I still have the 'AIDS look' reminiscent of the '80s and '90s, having lost a lot of body fat, and particularly it shows in my face," says Beauchamp.
Alejandro looks more robust, but that does not decrease his consequences of living with the virus.
"I had that mindset of being invincible and it wasn't going to happen to me," he says. "I felt like it is not as graphic as it used to be in the '80s, because you're not seeing people dying, you're seeing people living with it a lot more."
While preventive tools, treatment and therapies have improved drastically, there are still sobering realities. One of the biggest challenges seems to be that the stigma remains the same.
Marjorie Hill, the executive director of Gay Men's Health Crisis, the nation's oldest outreach group in response to the pandemic, says people with the disease still sometimes keep their status a secret.
"In spite of medications and in spite of [actor] Rock Hudson and [basketball star] Magic Johnson and [tennis star] Arthur Ashe and all of the individuals who support the work around HIV and AIDS, people are still not telling their family members," says Hill. "They are really keeping it underground still and it's hard to manage an illness that you are closeted about."
Beauchamp and Alejandro, who now volunteer and work with GMHC, say continuing to raise awareness and visibility through large events like AIDS Walk and outreach on smaller community and individual levels remains a big piece of bringing about change.
"I didn't always feel this comfortable about being open about my status," says Alejandro. "I felt that being open about my status and even disclosing to my family and to friends and even becoming a poster child and becoming a spokesperson on HIV and AIDS helped to empower me."
The CDC says new infections in the United States have fallen by more than two-thirds since the epidemic was at its peak.
More than 25 million people around the world have died of AIDS since 1981.