I’m often asked what motivated me to include Hilary and George, a young married couple with AIDS, in the mix of characters in my novel, Autumn Colors. It wasn’t something I planned at the outset of the story. But it evolved naturally from their abrupt and unexplained break-up early in the book. What, when they seemed so head-over-heels in love one minute, would cause George to suddenly and mysteriously run the other direction in the next minute? Sure, he could have been attracted to another woman. Because of the decent person he was, his guilt may have caused him to distance himself from Hilary at that point. But we get the sense from Hilary that there’s something more to it than that, something so “shameful” that he couldn’t share it with her. What could have been so taboo in the mid-seventies – era of “free love” and condoned promiscuity – that made him too ashamed or embarrassed to own up to it with his soul mate?
How about discovering that he was attracted to men?
And who, other than generous, tolerant and forgiving Hilary, would have agreed to marry him anyway and tell no one, even Kerry, her secret? (Of course, no one knew of the HIV/AIDS risk back in the seventies).
My full time day job is with the AIDS Institute at the NYS Dept. of Health. In spite of the dollars thrown at prevention and education, the number of new HIV infections annually has been stable over time. In fact, new infections among men having sex with men (MSM) have been increasing since the early 1990’s. Over half of new infections occur in MSM, and 31% of new infections result from heterosexual encounters. Women account for 27% of new infections nationwide.
So just because you’re not a gay or bisexual man doesn’t mean you’re not at risk for HIV (and other STDs) with unprotected sex.
With the advent in the nineties of highly active antiretroviral treatments (HAART) for HIV and the resulting drop in the death rate, AIDS is not an automatic death sentence. Have people become complacent?
But it still destroys lives. It still can kill. And long term treatment may predispose you to other serious, chronic illnesses. And none of it is necessary because prevention is so easy.
Living with this reality daily in my job was the reason I included the tragedy of Hilary and George in Autumn Colors. Back in the early eighties there wasn’t much that could be done to stop AIDS. Now there is. But I wanted to remind readers that AIDS hasn’t gone away and still has significant life-changing potential, if not always life-ending. It’s up to the individual to take the precautions needed to protect the quality and length of your life.
Quick HIV Facts Nationally:
Newly infected persons in 2006 – 56,300
New AIDS diagnoses in 2009 (advanced stage of HIV infection) – 34,993
More than 18,000 people with AIDS die in the US annually.
For more data, visit the CDC or NYS Dept of Health websites.