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2010: The Year the Tide Turned Against AIDS?

A number of new medical breakthroughs, a slightly softened stance from the Vatican and a vigorous new generation of activists offer new hope--but huge challenges remain.

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Roughly a quarter-century after gay men rose up to demand better access to H.I.V. medicines, a new breed of AIDS advocate is growing up on college campuses. Unlike the first generation of patient-activists, this latest crop is composed of budding public health scholars. They are mostly heterosexual. Rare is the one who has lost friends or family members to the disease. Rather, studying under some of the world’s most prominent health intellectuals, they have witnessed the epidemic’s toll during summers or semesters abroad, in AIDS-ravaged nations like Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

While the activism of these often-privileged kids is no more important  or influential than any other kind of activism, their position in the world indicates the steady erosion of the AIDS taboo, and shows how accepted it is to tackle the problem of AIDS head on, with righteous anger. They have interrupted Obama repeatedly, confronted his advisors at campus events, and picketed vigorously, all in the service of demanding more funding for AIDS. And they're even studying the tactics of 1980s-era Act UP AIDS activists.

Challenges remain

Of course, the battle is far from over. While more people than ever are getting HIV tests, and easier tests are being developed--more than half of Americans still do not get tested. As with many health issues, under-served populations continue to get shafted. African-American women in 2006 were getting infected at a much higher rate than white or Latina women. And with the budget crunch, many states are cutting off access to free drugs. And the lingering persistence of homophobia is and always will be a hurdle to overcoming stigma.

It’s also true that medical breakthroughs that initially look exciting can linger in limbo for years, end up being disappointing. And if AIDS is still stigmatized by right-wingers or homophobes here, it’s got an even further way to go in many developing nations where the work of activists and advocates to change perceptions has begun more recently than it did in the United States, ground zero for AIDS activism.

Still, with all the dismal news progressives faced this year, we can definitely take a moment to savor the progress the medical and activists communities have made against AIDS, and hope 2010 will be remembered as the year the tide turned.

Sarah Seltzer is an Associate Editor at Alternet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in and on the websites of The Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Wall Street Journal. She can be found at

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