BRATTLEBORO—When Ricky Davidson was a teenager in the early 1980s, “we knew about AIDS — well, we had heard about it — but no one we knew had it. We just knew it was an automatic death sentence, names were in the paper almost daily of those who had died, but it was always someone else, someplace else.”
That attitude, he said, was much different than what he hears from the teens we works with today at the Brattleboro Boys & Girls Club.
“I asked them, ‘how many of you know someone living with HIV?’, and they all said no. I asked what they think of when they hear about HIV or AIDS and they said things like ‘oh, doesn’t that happen only in Africa?’ or ‘those people — the ones who get it — are sick and probably use drugs.”
The difference, Davidson said, was that today’s young people won’t have to experience what he and his friends went through, when “‘those people’ started to become our friends, our classmates, and people we knew. It changed everything for us. As we, as I, started to bury friends, we learned as a generation what loss is, and we saw the richness and beauty that our world was losing.”
The theme for the 25th World AIDS Day this year is “Getting to Zero,” and at the annual vigil put on by the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont on Monday at the River Garden, there was as much talk about the progress being made toward that goal as there was talk about how much more needed to be done.
A scarred generation
Davidson’s generation remains deeply scarred by living through the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s, when it was the leading cause of death among people their 20s and 30s in the United States.
Today, as AIDS Project Senior Case Manager Marguerite Monet pointed out, there are now 1.2 million Americans infected with HIV. Of that number, 82 percent know they are HIV-positive, and 66 percent are seeing a doctor for treatment.
Thirty-seven percent of those 1.2 million remain in treatment, 32 percent are taking antiretroviral therapy (ART) drugs, which not only improves the health and well-being of people living with HIV but also stops further HIV transmission.
As a result, 25 percent have what’s called an “undetectable viral load.” Monet said this means that one-quarter of the 1.2 million Americans living with HIV and receiving ART treatment now have levels of the virus so low that they cannot be detected by a blood test.
Monet described this as a “treatment cascade,” and proof that getting to zero — zero levels of HIV — is medically possible.
“And that’s our goal,” she said.
But people are still getting infected with HIV, and Davidson said that young people who have not grown up in the shadow of the deadliest years of the AIDS epidemic aren’t worried about getting infected.
“They don’t think people are still getting HIV,” he said. “They don’t think that anyone in their community has it, or could get it, or at very least die because of it.”
That’s why Davidson says he, and others who went through those hard years, “have to take the time to tell the stories of those we have lost."
“We have to let them know that not only can people in their community get HIV, that they are and they don’t have to,” he continued. “We need to help them learn from what we know, teaching them that, as a generation, they do not have to go down the same path that a generation before them walked. People don’t have to get sick and die, and they don’t have to learn by burying their friends and loved ones.”
The global picture
Monet said that 35.3 million people around the world are living with the HIV virus. The good news is that 10 million of those infected are getting ART drugs — or a 40-fold increase from 2002 to 2012. This has led to a 29 percent decrease in deaths from AIDS.
However, of those 35.3 million, nearly two-thirds are women and children. That is the case in Kenya, where AIDS Project Board Chair Philip Wilson went recently with members of the Guilford Community Church.
The church has a vigorous exchange program with the village of Kaiguchu, and has helped in dealing with one of the biggest problems there and elsewhere in Africa — the large number of orphaned children after their parents have died from AIDS.
Wilson said he was heartened by the support system of aunts and grandmothers who have taken in these children. It’s a big job, considering 17.8 million children in Africa have lost one or both parents to AIDS.
More women than men contract HIV in Kenya, Wilson said, “because it is the men who infect them.” Gender roles remain lopsided, and women have a difficult time in Kenyan culture dealing with men who demand sex and are unwilling to either engage in safe sex or tell their partners about their HIV status.
The rate of infection is still high, but education, prevention, and better treatment is making a difference, Wilson said.
“I came away with a lot of hope,” he said.
A long battle
Advances in research and pharmaceuticals have made AIDS a managable disease, but it doesn’t mean that life is easy for those who are being kept alive thanks to diligently following a ART regimen.
Nick Marrocco, 59, of Bellows Falls, he has been living with AIDS since the 1980s. He grew up on Long Island, graduated high school in 1971, and did what he and his buddies were expected to do after graduation — he went into the service.
Marrocco joined the Navy in the waning days of the Vietnam War, at a time when drug use was rampant in the military. He acquired a taste for heroin — “the worst virus of them all,” he called it — and became an addict.
“And that’s how I got infected with the other virus,” he said. Sharing a syringe with a friend who was HIV positive, but didn’t know it yet, Marrocco eventually out out the news he said he “didn’t want to hear” -- he was diagnosed with a full-blown case of AIDS.
Marrocco said he was lucky to have received treatment for AIDS that has allowed him to stay alive for nearly three decades, but he admitted that the harder battle has been fighting to kick heroin, and that he has not always been successful.
He moved to Vermont in 2005, and has helped out as a counselor at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction.
“I never had the kind of support systems I have now until I got to Vermont,” he said. “It showed I wasn’t alone.”
He said he keeps a journal, “and I’m getting ready to write ‘2014’ in it. Here I am, a man living with AIDS, and I just made it through another Thanksgiving, and I’m really excited about that.”