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Why We Fight: A Personal Reflection on World AIDS Day

December 1, 2011

By J. Channing Wickham
Executive Director, Washington AIDS Partnership

Today is World AIDS Day – a time when people in our region and around the world unite in the fight against HIV, show their support for people living with HIV and commemorate people who have died. For many of us, World AIDS Day is a time of reflection. For me, it serves as a reminder of why I started doing the work I do today.

Twenty years ago, I was running a Washington, D.C.-based crisis hotline. One of my closest friends at that time was a man who was well known throughout the region, not only professionally, but for his kind and generous spirit. He was a wonderful friend. We frequently went running together and often enjoyed playing tennis.

I recently came across his Washington Post obituary from 1989. It lists the cause of death as pneumonia. He was 54. My friend took his secret – that he had AIDS – to the grave.

Looking back, it breaks my heart to know how ashamed he was of his diagnosis – so embarrassed he couldn’t even talk about the illness with his closest friends. I was shocked to learn, after he died, that he was afraid that if he revealed that he had AIDS he might lose his business and worried that his employees would be out of jobs.

That was my moment. That was when I decided to turn my attention to the fight against AIDS.  At the time, I knew a great deal about running a nonprofit organization. I knew how to raise money and how to manage a staff. But when it came to the world of HIV/AIDS, I was a total novice.

Twenty years later – 17 of which have been spent as Executive Director of the Washington AIDS Partnership – I still have much to learn. But in those two decades I have seen the first glimmers of hope that we can get ahead of this terrible disease if we stay focused and if everyone does his or her part – individuals, foundations, businesses and the government – and we do what science and research tell us we need to do.

Making treatment available to people living with HIV means helping them get medical care if they are too afraid or overwhelmed by the healthcare system. It means providing HIV testing anywhere and everywhere and being honest about sex and sexuality. And it means remaining true to that one person who inspired us to get involved in the first place.

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