It's coming up on 15 years since Magic Johnson held that press conference to announce that he was HIV-positive. He was, and remains, my favorite basketball player of all time, and I remember the jumble of emotions that I felt that day. It was 10 years into the AIDS crisis, and the disease suddenly had a famous heterosexual face to go along with the thousands of gay men who were infected and dying. (Tennis great Arthur Ashe, who contracted the virus after receiving tainted blood, would tragically serve as the catalyst to clean up the blood-bank system.)
I wrote a column at the time expressing my anger at Johnson for his self-destructive promiscuity and praying that a way could be found, if not to cure him and all the others, to keep them alive and close to healthy. Fifteen years later, he's not only still alive; he's thriving. He's in incredible physical condition, and the drug regimen he follows has the HIV so beaten back, it's virtually undetectable in his system. Of course, he's rich and can afford all those drug cocktails, which is a major issue unto itself.
But the disease is still there in his system, and while the scientist in me says never say never, the smart (and grim) bet is that it will be with him until his dying day.
How many of you baby boomers once thought that by the time we got to the 21st century, there would be a cure for cancer? Scientists have made great strides in the detection and treatment of cancer, but there is no cure, and none is on the horizon. Heck, we can't even cure the common cold.
Diseases are pernicious and adaptable; we, on the other hand, are determined and resourceful. Unfortunately, that leads one to conclude that this might be a functioning example of Zeno's Paradox, where we get closer and closer but never actually get there. Therefore, while I hope that a cure (or maybe a vaccine) is found for HIV, I'm not holding my breath. And so, it appears that the smart thing to do is focus on prevention.
The one relatively good thing about AIDS is that it is almost completely avoidable. Unlike the cold, you can't get it from somebody sneezing on you, or like lung cancer, you can't get it from secondhand smoke. No, you have to go out and get AIDS. You pretty much have to work at it.
I guarantee you that those last two sentences will put me on e-mail trees that will label me as everything from insensitive to a gay basher. That's a shame, because after a quarter-century of this awful disease, we should be at a point where it's OK to state that a little bit of personal responsibility can go a long way in the prevention of AIDS.
When I wrote that Magic Johnson column in 1991, I said that I felt horrible for those people who had contracted HIV without knowing how it happened. I feel sorry for every single person who got sick before we knew what the disease was and how it was transmitted. For the people who got it after we knew what caused it and that information was disseminated to the general public ... not so sorry. Unless someone contracts HIV against his/her will, through some act of violence, why should I feel sorry for that person?
It's like the ultimate example of the old Henny Youngman line: "Doctor, it hurts when I do this."
"Then don't do that."
Nearly 20 percent of all women who get lung cancer never smoked; no one knows why. That's horrible and unfair. But to the other 80 percent who started smoking in the 40 years since the surgeon general's warning was first issued and then got cancer, I'm supposed to say, "Oh, you poor thing?" I'll save my sympathy for the bald-headed 9-year-old who has leukemia.
Now that the blood supply is clean, one can only get HIV from using infected needles or from having unsafe sex with an infected person. Seems reasonably easy to avoid.
The last time I wrote that, I got death threats.
This all came back to me the other night when ABC News ran a Primetime segment called "AIDS in Black America." In the United States today, a black woman is 14 times more likely to contract HIV than her white counterpart. The numbers are similar for black men. In several sections of the South, AIDS has roared past the point of being an epidemic.
I watched in sadness and anger as one speaker after another tried to turn it into a matter of racial politics. One woman said, "If this (were) a disease that affected white men ... ." Are you kidding me? In this country, this disease started off affecting almost exclusively white men.
It infuriates me that we are facing a crisis with a disease that we can't cure, but actually don't even have to cure. We could eradicate AIDS in one generation if people would just act right.
At the end of that news show, one of the speakers, a community activist, said, "You don't expect me to tell people not to have (unsafe) sex, do you?"