Northwestern students advocate access to treatment on World AIDS Day

December 1 marks World AIDS Day — a day to show support for survivors, remember those who have died and unite in the fight against HIV.

Feinberg School of Medicine students hosted a series of events on this day to promote the global AIDS discussion.

I’ll admit, at first I was skeptical. I wondered, how could medical students at a prestigious university in the States’ third large city possibly understand the plight of the estimated 33.3 million people living with HIV?

Turns out, they know a thing or two.

“We’ve been taught that it’s a chronic disease that’s totally treatable,” said Chelsea Carlson, 2nd year Feinberg medical student. In reality, she added, only 20 percent of people have access to treatment worldwide.

More than 75 percent of the 1.2 million people diagnosed with HIV in the U.S. are linked to care within four months, according to an estimate released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“People ask ‘why is there a difference?’” Carlson said.

Like any disease, AIDS is a social issue. It not only threatens public health, but also a country’s development by undercutting economic and educational growth. Third world countries struggle with the AIDS epidemic and continue to struggle because it’s a systemic problem.

To learn more, I slipped into Carlson’s afternoon screening of the film Pills Profits Protest: Chronicle of the Global AIDS Movement, a documentary about AIDS treatment activism. She chose the film for its holistic approach. The film touches on issues of global health, research, drug development and access to health care.

Students from Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine hosted a film screening of "Pills Profits Protest: Chronicle of the Global AIDS Movement," a documentary about the AIDS activism, on World AIDS Day.

Countries in the Outcast Films documentary show how they’re incrementally making AIDS treatments accessible for every patient who needs them, whether or not patients can afford them. Brazil, for one, manufactures its own AIDS drugs to cut costs and make them more available. The film says it’s not a perfect system, but it’s a step.

So, what’s the big picture? The film asks: Can the world afford universal HIV treatment? (Or, afford not to treat these people?) This question pits marginalized individuals against formidable opponents: governments, corporations and the multinational drug industry.

Oh, and did I mention greed? Power struggles have created animosity and anger among opposing groups. As agendas and demands stack on top of one another, the AIDS movement can seem like a messy, overwhelming mountain to scale.

Pills and Profits, however, also shows how people are making incremental changes to better the lives of those living with HIV.

“Starting small is still a start,” said Phoebe Arbogast, 2nd year Feinberg medical student.

The AIDS movement has come a long way. Up until the mid-1990s, a patient couldn’t imagine living a long life after contracting AIDS. Feinberg students are well aware of AIDS status as a major medical problem that still has a long way to go.

They know that within the country’s poorer states there are waitlists for AIDS medicine. They know that public image can be ruined for all the players in the global AIDS debate. They know that social stigmas attached to people suffering from AIDS need to end. And they know that young people just like them die from this disease every single day.

“Someone in this room could have it and you wouldn’t know,” Carlson said.

After the film, I hung out at the Global Health Happy Hour, where students continued talking about the film and the day’s events. What they seemed to recognize most is the cost of inaction. People who get treatment and live have the chance to be productive. They can teach others about AIDS, bring treatment demands to policy makers and mobilize people to fight for the rights of the poor.

Students agreed that the split between treatment and prevention is a false debate because they are complementary. Both help push the AIDS movement forward.

The day ended on a hopeful note, much like the film, with a winter concert put on by medical student musicians. Despite the gravity of the AIDS epidemic, singers belted out holiday tunes with lots of energy and laughter.

As singing group DOCappela serenaded the crowd with Jingle Bell Rock, I couldn’t quite identify the feeling I was having. Was I impressed? Surprised? Proud? Whatever the feeling I’m glad to see young people sincerely care. I’m afraid we can easily become disenfranchised with the disease since treatment options have become available in our lifetime.

I may not see the end of AIDS in my lifetime, but at least I’ve met people who are dedicated to giving the end of AIDS a heck of a shot.

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