July 25, 2012 at 2:10 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
AIDS experts express hope at ‘Return to Lisner’
Return to Lisner, gay news, Washington Blade

A panel of experts discussed the state of the AIDS epidemic Tuesday night at Lisner Auditorium, the same place where D.C.’s first AIDS forum was held 29 years earlier. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A panel of experts in the fields of AIDS-related medicine, research, public policy, and education discussed the state of the AIDS epidemic Tuesday night at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, the same place where D.C.’s first AIDS forum was held 29 years earlier.

Tuesday’s forum followed an impassioned keynote address by Jeanne White-Ginder, mother of Ryan White, the Indiana teenager who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 at the age of 14. White, a hemophiliac who contracted the virus from contaminated blood products, became an internationally recognized advocate for AIDS research and education before he died in 1990.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who served as president of the Whitman-Walker Clinic at the time of the first AIDS forum at Lisner Auditorium in 1983, shared his recollection of the earlier forum at Tuesday’s event.

“When we came here to Lisner with nearly every seat filled on April 4, 1983, there was one thing that was certain,” he said. “And that was that something potentially devastating was about to happen. And we had to arm ourselves. We had to get ready.”

Graham noted that the 1983 forum was held at a time when little was known about the cause of AIDS and how it was transmitted. Although there were just a handful of reported cases in D.C., the city’s politically influential gay community was aware of the growing number of cases in New York, San Francisco, and other large U.S. cities, where otherwise healthy gay men were dying within months of being diagnosed with the disease.

“At a time when there was no Twitter, no Facebook, no Internet, no websites, 1,100 persons showed up on that night to find out what this was all about,” Graham said. “We believed then as we do now that if we could muster the will to marshal the resources we could stop AIDS dead in its tracks and we could care for those in dire need.”

The auditorium was about two-thirds full at Tuesday night’s forum.

Activists looking back at the early years of AIDS have often referred to that period as the “dark days,” when friends and loved ones died in increasing numbers.

With that as a backdrop, the panelists at Tuesday’s forum, while saying much still remains to be done, pointed to the dramatic scientific advances in the ensuring 29 years that have transformed an HIV infection from a near-certain death sentence to a chronic but manageable condition in which a person with HIV can live a normal lifespan.

“I think hope shines bright,” said Jose Zuniga, president of the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care.

“We have saved millions of lives through the provision of antiretroviral therapies,” Zuniga told the forum.

“This hope also serves to shine a light on the inequalities, the inequities, all the horrible – the racism, sexism, homophobia, trans phobia that are all barriers to our achieving the goals we have in mind,” said Zuniga. “Having said all of that, I remain highly hopeful and optimistic.”

Robert Redfield, chief of Infectious Diseases and director of HIV programs at the University of Maryland, said he was hopeful that further advances in antiretroviral drugs will lead to a “functional cure” of HIV infection before the end of this decade.

Redfield said researchers define a functional cure as the ability of an as yet to be developed drug or drug combination to permanently suppress the viral load in a person with HIV to a point where it is undetectable and the person no longer needs to take anti-retroviral drugs.

Currently, people with HIV whose viral level is undetectable through the use of existing antiretroviral drugs experience a relapse, with the virus reemerging in large numbers after the person stops taking the prescribed regimen of the drugs.

According to Redfield, researchers are getting closer to developing improved drugs that can seek out and destroy the ‘hidden’ forms of HIV that remain dormant in patients taking the current drug regimens but that reemerge if the patient stops taking the drugs.

In addition to Zuniga and Redfield, the other panelists included A. Cornelius Baker, former Whitman-Walker Clinic executive director and senior communications adviser and project director for a D.C.-based international consulting organization that addresses AIDS issues; Regan Hofmann, editor of POZ magazine; JoAnne Keatley, director of the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health at the University of California-San Francisco; and Adam Tenner, executive director of Metro Teen AIDS.

The panel was moderated by NBC Channel 4 News correspondent Tom Sherwood.

Baker and Hofmann each said they expected to die within a few years after their HIV diagnosis in the 1980s but now are confident that the effective drug therapies will enable them to advance to old age. Baker said he was pleased to celebrate his 50th birthday recently.

Hofmann, who follows the latest scientific developments on AIDS in her role as editor of POZ magazine, joked that her birthdays recently have taken on a new meaning.

“I’ve always been grateful to have my birthdays,” she said. “But now I’m officially old enough to lie about my age as a woman.”

Keatley said that while advances in drug therapies have yielded great benefits for most people with HIV, many general practice doctors and infectious disease specialists are not trained to address the special needs of transgender women with HIV.

“My problem with the current strategies is that while we’re putting a lot of hope and effort on new medical technologies I don’t feel we’re doing enough to reach out and engage with transgender populations and keep them in care,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve made enough investment and training of providers to be able to care for transgender bodies.”

Tenner, whose organization provides AIDS education for LGBT youth, said that while he, too, is optimistic that an end to AIDS is a possibility in the not too distant future he’s also troubled over shortcomings in government programs aimed at AIDS education and treatment.

“I’m angry that not every young person gets HIV education or bullying education,” he told the forum. “We could get every young person high quality AIDS education but we are not getting that.”

Baker pointed to recently released findings of a National Institutes of Health study of HIV prevalence in black men who have sex with men in six large U.S. cities, including D.C. He noted that existing LGBT and AIDS organizations don’t appear to be addressing issues faced by this particular population.

The study found high levels of HIV infection, incarceration, unemployment and other social problems in black gay men to the same extent found in heterosexual black men.

In summing up the panelists’ views, Sherwood said each appeared to be highly optimistic while expressing reservations or concern over certain aspects of the response to AIDS.

“We all have hope with an asterisk,” he said.

Jeanne White-Ginder (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

White-Ginder told of how her son met a man undergoing tests for AIDS-related symptoms at New York City’s Roosevelt Memorial Hospital, where her son went for an experimental treatment a few years after his AIDS diagnosis in Indiana. At the time, most of the hospital’s AIDS patients were gay men.

“Ryan was sitting in the lab getting his lab work done and a gentleman came up to him and said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re Ryan White, aren’t you?’” White-Ginder said. “And Ryan went, ‘Yes.’ He said they found 12 tumors in me. He said I haven’t been diagnosed with AIDS yet but they’re pretty sure that’s what I have. He said I want to thank you for all you’ve done for us people with AIDS.”

White-Ginder continued: “The gentleman turned away and Ryan looked at me and said, ‘You know mom I’m the only one who really knows what he’s talking about.’ He said, ‘We’re both fighting the same disease.’ We never took it to represent one cause or another. We wanted to represent everybody with this disease…So that is why I’m here with you today,” she said.

Before the panel discussion began, White-Ginder introduced a music video about her son produced by Michael Jackson, who released his song “Gone Too Soon” as part of the video. Jackson made the video shortly after Ryan White’s death in 1990.

She noted that both Jackson and singer Elton John befriended her son in the years after his diagnosis in a showing of solidarity to join Ryan White in the fight against AIDS discrimination. The two singers attended Ryan White’s funeral.

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington also performed at the forum prior to the start of the panel discussion.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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