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David Furnish: Fighting the Stigma

David Furnish: Fighting the Stigma

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As chairman of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, David Furnish does all he can to see that his young son, Zachary, will one day live in an AIDS-free world. Last November the activist and filmmaker delivered a keynote speech at the United States Conference on AIDS in Chicago, discussing the Greater Than AIDS initiative (< href ="https://www.greaterthan.org/">GreaterThan.org), of which the Elton John AIDS Foundation is a founding partner. Just last month, the foundation's annual Academy Awards party, a tradition since 1993 raised an impressive $5.25 million for the fight against HIV/AIDS, but Furnish's ceaseless efforts go far beyond monetary contributions. What led the Elton John AIDS Foundation to cofound Greater Than AIDS? Just the opportunity to partner with many wonderful people, like the Kaiser Foundation, Walgreens, Johnson Publishing, and Ebony magazine. We're finding, despite the fact that we've been living with this disease for 30 years, that the greatest challenge we're facing is stigma. The biggest hurdle we have to overcome is getting people to overcome their fear and their inhibitions so they can go into safe, easy environments and learn their HIV status as soon and as privately as possible so they can act accordingly. How important are events like the U.S. Conference on AIDS? Very important, because I think there is a younger generation of people and a lot of minority communities that basically hit the [information] snooze button on the alarm clock. People aren't writing about AIDS as much anymore. I get very frustrated every time I pick up a newspaper on World AIDS Day and find the story buried on page 26, if it's covered at all. What would you like to say to the younger generation? I would say, if you're in a situation to prevent yourself from contracting any disease, you should do so. [Which means] wearing a condom if you're in a nonexclusive relationship or in an exclusive relationship where you don't know the status of your partner. What brought you personally to the fight against HIV and AIDS? I lost many, many friends in the '80s. And I watched them die very solitary, stigmatized deaths. The first friend I knew who died from HIV, his family never had a chance to come and say goodbye to him because he was too embarrassed to tell them he was battling HIV and AIDS. I think that's very, very sad, and I found his loss profoundly moving. What are some of the main hurdles you'd like to see overcome? I would like to see homophobia addressed a whole lot more on a national level. And on a local level I think the government can continue to do more in terms of a policy direction. And I'd like to see, hand in hand with that, people feeling much less stigmatized about knowing their HIV status and living positively with AIDS. I'd really like to see all of those things swept away so that HIV is something people talk about like many other medical conditions we face in life. What about scientifically? Listen, I'd love to see a cure. I'd love to see a vaccine. There's lots of promising research out there, but it still hasn't happened yet. But with the tools we already have, the weapons we have at our disposal, we've come a long way. Treatment is almost coming down to the point where it equals prevention. When you talk about a 96% reduction in viral load and a 96% reduction in passing the virus on to another person, that's a huge step. I hope we keep making greater steps in that direction. You're a new dad. How did becoming a father motivate the work you do? I would like to see my son in his lifetime live in a world without AIDS. And whether we discover a vaccine or a cure, if we can address stigma and homophobia, we can stop the disease from being spread to other people. And since we know with the programs we're doing around the world that we can prevent mother-to-child transmission in HIV-positive mothers, we can literally visualize an AIDS-free next generation'and my son is going to be a part of that. That's a dream that I really hope will become a reality. And I believe it can become a reality.

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