Thursday, January 17, 2008

Our Children Are Dying

“He had planned to have a party for his 30th birthday. Instead, he was thinking of hanging himself in his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen.”

When I read that sentence in a New York Times article by Sarah Kershaw on January 2, 2008, I was stopped cold. Two weeks earlier, I had just buried my mother, age 92, who had more of a zest for living than most one-third her age.

The thought of a 30 year old killing himself assaulted me.

Kershaw’s story, headlined “New HIV Cases Drop, but Rise in Young Gay Men,” is being told all over the country—from Hell’s Kitchen to Harlem and Boston to San Francisco. Our children are dying of AIDS, and more and more of them are young, gay, gifted, Black and brown.

Since the beginning of 2008, we’ve been staggered by stories and statistics about HIV/AIDS that we thought we would never have to live through again. True, the overall death rate from AIDS fell some 15 percent in NYC over the past year, dropping to the lowest number (1,209) since 1984. And, yes, the HIV infection rate among men over 30 years old in NYC has declined 22 percent. But don’t toast that news with a dirty martini just yet.

HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths are soaring in the under 30 year gay male population, jumping 32 percent over the past 5 years according to the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene. Even worse, the number of new infections among the youngest men in the study—ages 13-19—has doubled during the same period.

Why? Didn’t we lose too many friends, family members and colleagues to go through all this again? Don’t we ever learn?

Drug use is up, particularly among younger men having sex with men, and with it, safer sex gets forgotten. Stigma toward anyone who is HIV positive is also up—especially among young gay men, and in communities of color—and with it so is the reluctance to get tested, to know one’s HIV status, or to inform a potential sexual partner about it. And smugness toward the disease is also way up, with many gay men under 30 falsely assuming that getting treated for HIV/AIDS is as easy as taking two Advil.

And, if this news isn’t enough to take your breath away, a new study just published by the Annals of Internal Medicine should make you wake up

screaming in the night. According to the study, a highly drug-resistant

strain of MRSA—the flesh-eating bacteria—is spreading among gay men in San Francisco, Boston, New York and LA. In San Francisco, the study found that the risk of contracting MRSA is 13 times greater for gay men than for the rest of the population. Nearly 19,000 people died from MRSA in the United States in 2005 alone, according to the CDC. In this newest study, the bacterium appears to be spread most easily through anal intercourse, casual skin-to-skin contact, and by touching contaminated surfaces.

Ironically, it was Lawrence K. Altman, the New York Times Senior Science correspondent, who reported on this new Stephen King-like story early this week—the same Larry Altman who broke the Times’ front page story 27 years ago about a then little-known virus found in a few gay men on the West Coast.

MRSA, drugs, stigma, indifference, too much booze, loneliness, fear, discrimination, ignorance, low self esteem—we have so much more work to do to prevent our children from dying at their own hands, or through the carelessness of others. The 30-year old in Sarah Kershaw’s story knew that he could only save his own life by doing the hard work of facing his many demons and building a better life.

It’s time we all did the same, if we want to save the next generation.

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