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World AIDS Day 2016: Measure in Love

Reflections on World AIDS Day 2016 – By Julie Lewis

This year’s World AIDS Day theme, “HIV Prevention,”  brought to mind lyrics from the song “Season’s of Love,” from one of my favorite musicals, RENT. The song asks the heartfelt question… “How do you measure a year in a life… How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?”

As we strive toward ending AIDS by 2030, how do we humanize the impact of HIV prevention? Simple numbers on a page don’t convey the difference that HIV prevention is making on a practical, everyday level in people’s lives around the world.  How do we measure prevention in the moments of a life that can now be lived? What does it mean when a parent doesn’t die, when a baby is born healthy, when a single life is valued? How can we, as the song points out, measure in love?

Disease prevention is important not just because of what it stopped but because of what it enables. What HIV prevention allows are the moments that would have been lost, the journeys that can now be traveled, and the lives that can now be shared. When I was diagnosed in 1990, I was given 3-5 years to live.  26 years later,  HIV treatment has meant a life well lived full of life and love through birthdays, graduations, weddings, grandchildren and many moments with my family. Sure, it has meant taking over 60,000 pills over the past three decades to stay alive, but I am well aware that medical care is a privilege and has allowed me a deep fulfilling life.

Not everyone is afforded these health care benefits or access to care and medication. While traveling in rural Kenya, where healthcare access is limited, I met a man who had quit his job to care for his wife while she died of AIDS.   His lack of income resulted in his two children dropping out of school because he could not pay the fees. Access to healthcare and HIV prevention might have prevented her death and the devastating ripple effect on his family. On the same trip I also met an HIV+ new mother who had a happier story, she was fortunate to receive prenatal care and medication that prevented transmission of the virus to her newborn girl. Her hope is to stay healthy, despite her diagnosis, by taking life saving medications to see her child grow up and even someday perhaps become a grandmother like me. For this woman, HIV prevention and treatment isn’t about statistics, it’s about time. Time to be a parent or grandparent, a sister or a brother, time to be a spouse, lover, friend, co-worker. Time to laugh, cry, create, screw up, hang out, contribute, love. Time to live. HIV prevention is a gift of time.

Which brings me to this World AIDS Day. Each year I recall memories of my friends who died of AIDS; Joyce, Kara, Cami, George, Barry, Craig, Tony, Mark, Harold. I wonder how the world would be different if they had benefitted from HIV prevention? What moments would have happened, what contributions and creativity did we lose when they died? What would Kara have accomplished if she was now 28 years old and hadn’t died of AIDS when she was seven?  When we lose someone close to us, we don’t necessarily miss them because of the things they could have accomplished. Really, we miss them because of the hole created in our lives because they’re gone. My friend in Kenya doesn’t miss his wife because of what she might’ve done or accomplished, he misses her because he and his children love her and she’s gone. HIV prevention is not only a gift of time, HIV prevention is also a gift of love.

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