BRATTLEBORO—At the annual World AIDS Day vigil put on by the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont on Dec. 1 at the River Garden, there was plenty of good news to share about the progress being made toward the goal of zero new HIV infections by 2030.
While there is still no cure or vaccine for HIV/AIDS, AIDS Project Senior Case Manager Marguerite Monet pointed out that, according to the World Health Organization, fewer people have died of HIV than at any point in the past two decades, and new infections are at the lowest point since 1991.
Since 1981, when the first deaths from AIDS were reported, more than 78 million people worldwide have been infected by HIV/AIDS, and 35 million have died.
The good news, Monet said, is that the world is getting closer to the long-sought goal of no new infections. More than 18 million people worldwide are taking antiretroviral therapy drugs, which not only improve the health and well-being of people living with HIV but also stop further HIV transmission.
At the same time, Monet said the bigger threats for those who test positive for HIV are co-infections such as tuberculosis, hepatitis C, and cervical cancer. But the combination of testing and treatment are reducing the rate of co-infection, she said.
In Vermont, the state Department of Health says it knows of 665 people who are HIV-positive, and that slightly more than half of those have an “undetectable viral load,” meaning they have levels of the virus so low they cannot be detected by a blood test.
Dealing with opioids
The AIDS Project helps 92 people and their families in Windham, Bennington, and southern Windsor counties with case management and support. It is one of three AIDS service organizations in Vermont.
But Monet said the biggest issue they are dealing with now is the opioid epidemic and the spread of HIV through heroin users sharing needles. They have resumed a needle exchange program, she said, and have stepped up education programs.
Taken together, Monet said the various advances in the treatment and prevention of HIV means that talking about reaching zero new infections isn’t a crazy dream.
“We have come a long way,” Monet said.
But she did raise the specter of the recent presidential election, and the rise of intolerance directed at the LBGTQ community.
“The danger is higher than it was at the height of the epidemic,” Monet said. “That is why we need to come together and recognize that we are all connected to one another.”
She closed her remarks with a quote that originated in AA group meetings: “There is no you or me or them. Everything is connected and the salvation of each of us is linked to the salvation of all of us.”
Vigil and a film
The commemoration featured a brief sidewalk vigil, music from Katy Peterson, and the screening of a 15-minute documentary, “And Counting,” made by New Hampshire director Michelle Wood.
Wood made the film in 2014 about Quinton Beckham. It tells his intellectual and emotional journey from believing he was going to die soon after being infected with HIV to living longer than he ever imagined he would — nearly two decades, or long enough to welcome his first grandchild into the world.
Over the past two years, “And Counting” has made the rounds of the U.S. film festival circuit, winning several awards in the process.
Beckham is never seen on camera. Instead, Wood said she chose to create an artistic aural and visual representation of his journey. “I wanted to make this story to be about more than one person,” she said.