M y  P e r s p e c t i v e  o n  A I D S

          AIDS; an acronym for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, has disrupted the lives of people everywhere around the world.  Its impact on society has been so profound that this epidemic has not failed to capture the attention of scientists who want to wipe out its deadly impact.  For some, AIDS is just a recognizable disease; simply a four letter acronym that students briefly hear about in their classes.  For others, AIDS is a hard hitting plague that has been one of the most difficult and complicated diseases to grasp.  One’s opinion and knowledge on AIDS is heavily influenced by what they witness in the media.  Whether it is advertisements or commercials, youngsters are encouraged to delve deeper into this once mysterious and shady epidemic.  Unfortunately for my hometown of Queens, NY, AIDS has had a far greater impact than I imagined.  Their lack of information in the local media on the disease hinders their ability to spread their message across and also contributes to the high rate of AIDS cases in the area. AIDS is a concern in Queens; a concern that needs to be addressed so that people like me, who have very limited knowledge on AIDS, can understand its crucial effect.

I lived in Queens, NY my entire life.  As the largest borough in New York City, Queens is home to an array of rich food, diversity, and culture, but it is also home to the AIDS epidemic.   It was surprising for me to learn that Queens has a significantly high case of AIDS.   How can Queens, having heard nothing about AIDS in local newspapers, be one of the main targets for this deadly epidemic?  Initially, my guess of the AIDS cases in Queens was approximately 8,000. Little did I know that I would be faced with a number beyond my imagination; a whopping total of 19,627 AIDS cases have been totaled from January 1, 1983 to December 31, 2005.  This number was more than twice my original hypothesis.  I never expected for Queens to have an AIDS rate of about 844, approximately twice more the national rate of around 340 out of 100,000 people. [1] It is very difficult to grasp the number of AIDS cases in Queens which holds 13.5% of New York City’s “People Living with AIDS/HIV” category as of 2003.  The neighborhood with the second highest cases of people with AIDS is West Queens, which include the towns of Elmhurst, Carona, Jackson Heights, Maspeth and Woodside, having an AIDS rate of 836 out of 100,000 people.   It is even more shocking to discover that the hardest hit area is in Jamaica, Queens which is just a few train stops away from my town of Elmhurst, Queens.  Zip code 11433 in Jamaica, Queens has an AIDS rate of 2,113 out of 100,000 people, the third largest in the Queens county area.  In total, Jamaica, Queens has an AIDS rate of 1,456 out of 100,000 people.  (Refer to Table 1) [2]

Many factors correlate with the high percentage of AIDS cases in the area.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), African Americans are five times more likely to acquire the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) than Caucasians.  Moreover, African Americans account for 43.6% of AIDS cases reported in Queens from 1983-2005. (Refer to Table 2) [3]  Interestingly enough, Jamaica, Queens is comprised of mostly African Americans.  Economic factors may play a role in the high number of AIDS cases as Jamaica, Queens has often been neglected from government funding.  During the 1980s, Jamaica, Queens became home to the crack epidemic that was sweeping the nation.  The presence of crack may indicate the use of other dangerous drugs and the sharing of needles.  According to the CDC statistics, 35.5 % of all AIDS cases in Queens derive from Intravenous Drug Users (IDU) from 1983 to 2005.  Compared to the United States which has 26.0% of AIDS cases deriving from IDUs in the same time period, the number in Queens is noticeably higher than the national average.  (Refer to Table 3) [4]  According to a report from the United Way of NYC, from 1989 to 1999 the median income decreased 9%.  Furthermore, the decrease of income was the largest percent loss of the five boroughs, and currently the percentage of people living below the poverty line is 21.6%.  Such economic hardships in Queens might explain the high rate of AIDS cases because people might not have access to facilities such as drug-testing centers, rehabs, or community centers to learn ways on how to prevent AIDS and promote a healthy lifestyle.  It also explains the high number of drug users who live out on the streets sharing needles and exchanging blood. [5] Additionally, NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden stated that the great advances in HIV/AIDS medicine has not been spread equally to the African Americans and the Hispanics noting that as a result they are more likely to die from it than any other minority group. [6]

Though my past memories are slowly fading, I do recall understanding what the AIDS epidemic was during middle school when teachers used to teach us about the different sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).  Even during my junior year in high school, when I took a health class as an elective, I did not learn much about the impact of AIDS.  The classes on STDs and AIDS were very brief, lasting only about three 55-minute periods and even then the teacher quickly breezed through the topic as if he were uncomfortable with the issue.  AIDS was not really spoken about in my school.  The closest thing my public high school came to actually preventing AIDS was the distribution of condoms by the physical education teachers in order to promote, “safe sex”.  These condoms were readily available to students and were stored in the office of the physical education teachers.  This lack of information in my high school is highly ironic being that it is located in one of the main targets for the AIDS epidemic.  New York City, in fact, is recently reported to have the highest number of AIDS cases of any metropolitan area in the country, with an alarming 126, 237 cumulative AIDS cases from 1981 to 2005, which accounts for approximately 15.6% of all cases nationwide and 73.0% of AIDS cases in New York State.  Thus, it is surprising to me that my school did not cover it as much as they should have given the high percentage of AIDS cases the city possesses. [7]

My knowledge on AIDS is limited to what I have learned during my summer program affiliated with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine which focused more on the biological and technical aspect of AIDS rather than the tremendous impact it has had on our country.  My memories of this five week summer course that I took during the end of my sophomore year are very distant.  However, I remember the teachers focusing primarily on the biological portion of AIDS, such as the opportunistic diseases, transmission methods, and the effect of AIDS in the body.  The instructors, whose goal was to educate the twenty-five students on AIDS, assigned us posters, papers, and PowerPoint presentations which was presented weekly.  This course taught me all the scientific terms associated with AIDS, T-cells, immune system, lymphocytes, macrophages, retrovirus, etc., but never did it really focus on the indelible mark it has left on our country.

Because I do not read the newspaper as often as I should, I rely on billboards and advertisements to inform me of their messages.  Having spent two and half hours a day on the subway while going and coming from school, I have noticed quite a few advertisements regarding AIDS.    Recently, New York State promoted an AIDS campaign called “HIV Stops with Me” which launched its advertisements in the New York City and the Buffalo area.  I have seen these ads while riding the train or waiting for the bus.  Their messages, “I believe in staying healthy” and “I believe in responsibility” are clear.  These ads are targeted at gay men and women of color.  The spokespeople on the ads are not actors and actresses, they are real New Yorkers and people from Buffalo who have AIDS and who want to convey the dangers of the disease and STDs.  Whether it is the AIDS walk, held annually in the month of May at Central Park, or celebrities on billboards promoting the fight against the disease, these advertisements are attempts to provide people with information and help raise money for AIDS research. [8]

While researching there was nothing on AIDS in the local newspapers such as the Queens Chronicle or the Queens Gazette.  In fact, the LexisNexis search engine did not even recognize the newspapers.  I had to search for the more well- known papers circulating in New York City, such as The New York Post, Newsday, and The New York Times.  I do not read the newspapers often, but if I did, I would not find much information regarding the situation of AIDS in the New York City.  Such articles as “Two Cheers on Global AIDS” (June 18, 2007, Section A, pg. 18) [9], “AIDS in Africa: Rising above the Partisan Babble” (July 3, 2007, Section F, pg. 5) [10], and “New AIDS cases in Africa Outpace Treatment Gains” (June 6, 2007, Section A, pg. 3) [11] from The New York Times’ focuses more on the issue of AIDS internationally rather than locally.  Several articles do discuss the technological, economic and political aspect of the disease, “Pols Want HIV Tests for Kids” (May 8, 2007, All Editions pg. 2) [12] from The New York Post, “Pacts could lower AIDS drug costs” (May 9, 2007, News, pg. A24) [13] from Newsday, “Preventing H.I.V, but at What Price?” (April 15, 2007, Section 4, pg. 5) [14] and “AIDS Drugs Reach More People, UN Says, but Not Enough” (April 18, 2007, Section A, pg. 7) [15] both from The New York Times’.  The only newspaper article that was useful was The New York Times’ article “H.I.V and AIDS: Keep an Eye on Prevention” (June 25, 2007, Section A, pg. 18) [16] which deals with the methods in which to stop the spread of the disease.  This article stated the ways of preventing the disease that everyone could follow and it reached everyone regardless of age, race, or sex.  All these articles have been fairly recent since I have been paying more attention to AIDS during the last year of high school.  It also important to note that these articles are mostly found in the later sections of the newspaper, indicating that these stories are not worthy enough to be front page news.  Moreover, when I searched for articles in the past five years, the documents exceeded 1,000 and could not display. 

As a result of my lack of interest in reading newspapers, my guess on the AIDS cases in Queens was primarily made from the eye-catching advertisements I see on the subways and the bus.  I must note, however, that I also get my information on AIDS from the www.one.org website which features celebrities combating extreme poverty and AIDS around the world.  The co-founder and spokesperson of this non-profit organization, Bono, is the lead singer of one my favorite bands of all time, U2.  Being a 17-year old girl, I am very interested in music and celebrities and all that is good in Hollywood.  Thus, when I go to my favorite musicians’ Myspace site, I see the advertisements for the ONE campaign and the concerts they are doing to promote and raise money for the organization.  What is extremely effective about this technique is that it reaches the younger audience who are sometimes too preoccupied with their daily activities in life.  The ONE gel bracelets, t-shirts, and the concerts all help in attracting the youth to understand AIDS and its impact on the entire world.  It certainly furthered my interest in AIDS even more than I was before, even though my hypothesis was completely off. 

The AIDS cases in Queens, NY may seem a bit overwhelming, but the reality of the AIDS epidemic is real.  Queens needs more stories in the local papers on the AIDS epidemic, but more importantly they need to take this disease seriously. After all the statistics that I gathered, I was shocked to find such high numbers.  I never expected, in my cocoon of Queens, that something as devastating as AIDS can exist in such vast percentages.  My inadequate knowledge on the disease was due to the ads I see everyday on the train and the websites dedicated to AIDS.  Fortunately, there are ways of preventing the spread of AIDS.  One way, is simply just by communication.  Currently, the media is such an important tool that we should take advantage of it.  With science and technology on the rise, I am hopeful that one day there will be a cure for AIDS.  However, I question why my hometown of Queens is not doing its part in preventing AIDS.  How can Queens, which has a reputation of being the quietest and peaceful borough in New York City, have such a high percentage of AIDS cases?  And why isn’t more being done to stop it?