Humor me and play along. What do baseball, basketball and HIV awareness all have in common? I know you will get it. After all it’s March Madness and the final four NCAA basketball teams will be playing soon (thank goodness!). It’s almost the beginning of baseball season (go San Francisco Giants!). I’m going to be on a conference call with other faith leaders talking about the U.S. budget and faith. I know there are some, including my representative here in Texas, who want to cut aid for HIV/AIDS by ten-percent (ugh!).
Have you figured out the common denominator? It’s Magic Johnson! Magic Johnson is a basketball Hall of Famer who, also played in NCAA championships when he was in college. He is the recent lead new owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. And, he’s been living with HIV for over twenty years. In fact, he has a foundation that, among other things, brings awareness to HIV and emphasizes early testing.
Magic Johnson found out he had HIV during a routine physical when he was playing basketball with the LA Lakers. It was 1991. While a lot was known about HIV by then, there still was a stigma and a lot of fear still surrounding HIV and AIDS. Johnson’s willingness to publicly step forward was a pivotal moment for HIV awareness. He was a major and popular sports icon who was admitting to having a disease that stigmatized and ostracized the people who were open about it.
I think that’s when public acceptance and awareness of HIV/AIDS finally began to change. It also helped those of us in the field finally have some leverage with education, safer sex practices, and testing. The heterosexual population had to face they too were vulnerable. Magic Johnson, becoming a spokesperson and advocate, helped changed the conversation around HIV/AIDS.
There are approximately 1.2 people in the U.S. living with HIV. One in five, or 20-percent, are not aware they have HIV. The number of people living with HIV infection is higher now than ever before. Part of that has to do with fewer people dying from AIDS as a result of better drug therapies. The alarming fact is the number of new cases has remained stable since the late 1990s. That means the opportunity for transmission still remains high because the number of cases is remaining stable.
The majority of persons living with HIV do not transmit HIV to others. This means that at least 95% of those living with HIV infection did not transmit the virus to others that year–an 89% decline in the estimated rate of HIV transmission since the peak level of new infections in the mid-1980s. The decline in transmission is likely due to effective prevention efforts and the availability of improved testing and treatments for HIV. The lower transmission rate is what has enabled HIV incidence to remain stable despite increasing prevalence.
Two populations whose HIV infection rates are increasing are youth (ages 13-29) and over 50! The latest figures (2009) show that 39-percent of all new cases of HIV were in 13 to 29 year-olds! Education, awareness, negotiating skills around safer sexual practices, and testing are still necessary (hello, Texas, et.al.!).
Magic Johnson could have used his celebrity to deny or ignore his HIV status. Instead, he used his celebrity to bring awareness and advocacy to a public health crisis that still affects us, and yet is preventable! Someone you know has HIV, even if they themselves don’t know. Do your part. Be informed. Get tested. Support causes that promote education, testing, and client care.
Note: My sister is riding with Team CARES in the NorCAL AIDS Cycle to raise money for the CARES clinic in Sacramento where my son, who is living with HIV, receives services. Check out her blog to learn more.
If you’re new to my blog, check out my series on HIV/AIDS. The newer posts within that topic will be first. Once you’ve clicked on the topic, you may want to scroll to the beginning. I share some of my experiences working in the field during the early years.