In 1995, I was released from the hospital after being treated for Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, or PCP. My CD4-cell count was zero. I weighed 119 pounds. I had just been diagnosed with AIDS.
Today, thanks to dramatic improvements in treatment, I am healthy and fit. I weigh 165 pounds. My CD4 count has climbed to more than 500, and my viral load is undetectable. I'm in incredible shape for someone who has had HIV for 30 years.
Even so, I question whether progress in HIV treatment means we are winning the war against AIDS. Treatment is just one of the battles in the war against this disease, but there is another far more crucial: the battle of HIV prevention.
While I was hospitalized with PCP and literally on my deathbed, I had a dream in which I was told I would not die but would survive to educate others about HIV. Since the night of my riveting dream 16 years ago, I have shared my story with more than 100,000 teenagers and young adults.
The problem is that today one rarely sees frail AIDS patients in public or in the press, and the media faithfully reports on treatment successes. Whenever I ask young people how the current rate of new HIV infections compares to 10 or 15 years ago, nearly 100% of them believe fewer people are getting infected today. Americans, young and old, somehow conclude that fewer people dying equals fewer people getting infected.
This is why I talk to teenagers whenever I can. I tell them that there are now 1.2 million HIV-positive Americans, a number three times higher than 20 years ago. I remind them that there is no cure for AIDS. Neither a cure nor vaccine is expected anytime soon. While medical advances have made HIV/AIDS a chronic illness rather than fatal, treatment is unbelievably expensive and out of reach for many of those infected. Our government has never taken an aggressive role in preventing its citizens from becoming another statistic for the disease, and even today only 3% of the federal government's allocation to HIV/AIDS programs covers prevention.
In a world where those concerned about HIV are well-meaning but often misguided, we must all be educators in our own right.
After the first five years of my journey to help prevent HIV, I realized I was becoming increasingly frustrated. The more teenagers and adults who heard my story, the more I realized I was merely one small fish in a huge ocean. There is a need for thousands of 'me' traveling around the country and the world, meeting with millions of youth to explain how HIV has a never-ending impact on our lives.
Don Carrel is the author of My Dream to Trample AIDS. Carrel has led about 4,000 teens in the Don's Teens Trample AIDS team, which has raised over $100,000 in the Kansas City, Mo., AIDS Walk.