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Lessons from Three Decades of HIV/AIDS

Cleve Jones, founder of The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, reflects on lessons from the darkest days of HIV/AIDS as we enter the fourth decade of the pandemic.

Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.

When President Obama released the nation's first comprehensive national plan for responding to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, it was remarkable for its scope and specificity. It was remarkable, also, that it took our country almost three decades to develop such a plan.

Thirty years ago I was a junior staffer in the California Legislature assigned to the Assembly Health Committee. I remember vividly reading that first report in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), describing a cluster of gay men in Los Angeles with Kaposi's Sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia. Within just a few years, it seemed as if everyone I knew was dead, dying or caring for a loved one who was dying.

I found out that I was infected in 1985. It would be nine years before effective treatments reached me and my friends and neighbors. With little hope for a cure or vaccine, we fought hard for prevention education campaigns, expanded research and access to treatment and services.

We learned some critical lessons during the darkest years of the pandemic and many of those lessons are reflected in President Obama's strategy. But in one regard, the President's plan is already outdated: today we know that individuals receiving effective HIV medications are 96% less likely to pass on the infection to their sexual partners.

In my view, the single most important goal for HIV prevention must be to eliminate all barriers to treatment. This is a daunting challenge but one that we must embrace. The global fight against HIV/AIDS can and must be reenergized and the generation coming of age today must know that it is within their power to not just manage HIV, or mitigate HIV, or cope with HIV, but to end it.

Decades ago, we marched on the White House in anger and were arrested on Pennsylvania Avenue. Our slogan then was Silence=Death. Today, people living with AIDS work within the White House and lead our nation's response to the pandemic. As we begin the fourth decade of AIDS our new slogan must be Treatment=Prevention. By removing the barriers of stigma and cost, we can save the lives of millions already infected and dream of a day when we defeat the virus itself and end AIDS forever.

Cleve Jones is founder of The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.