Today, 30 years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, there is one simple, inescapable truth: It’s not over. The epidemic that has plagued men, women and children around the world for more than three decades continues to take millions of lives and disrupt health systems and economies on a global scale.
Chances are that anyone reading this dispatch knows it’s not over, at least on an intellectual level—that is, if assumptions are accurate that The Atlantic’s readership skews over 30 years old. Here’s the thing though, while those 30 and older generally understand the nature and history of the disease, our kids and grandkids are completely missing the message, and it’s leading to some truly scary trends.
Consider the insights released earlier this month from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is reporting that the rate of HIV diagnosis has dropped by 5.6% in the general U.S. population from 2008 to 2012. That, of course, is encouraging news, but it is news greatly tempered by the fact that HIV infection rates actually increased for key populations such as adolescents and adults under 30, and men who have sex with men (MSM). That’s not a misprint. The good news all but fades away. As someone who has worked to fight this disease for decades, I am appalled. As a parent of two pre-teens, I am terrified.
In response, we at the MAC AIDS Fund have turned our focus to the aforementioned younger generation, a generation that, to date, has tuned out messages about HIV/AIDS and is generally apathetic about the subject. It’s an apathy that was clearly revealed in a survey of U.S. teens we recently commissioned. Shockingly, it showed that 9 out of 10 teens (12-17 years) don’t think they are at risk of contracting HIV, and 33% don’t think HIV is an STD. If that doesn’t capture everyone’s attention, I’m not sure what will.
Clearly the data tells a story that we all need to consider and take seriously. Not only do we have an issue in containing and ending the epidemic medically, but we also have an issue of awareness, as there simply are not enough young people and other key populations getting the message about safety and protection, let alone stigma reduction.
To date, the MAC AIDS Fund has addressed youth by funding groundbreaking programs from organizations such as Grassroot Soccer, The Hetrick Martin Institute and The Ali Forney Center that are laser focused on key youth populations. That funding continues today, and we’re able to continue it because we enlist the help of rock stars like Rihanna and now Miley Cyrus to support our campaigns for MAC VIVA GLAM lipstick and lipgloss. When consumers buy VIVA GLAM, 100% of the purchase price goes to the MAC AIDS Fund and makes us the world’s largest corporate funder of HIV/AIDS programming. Since our founding 20 years ago, we have raised and granted $350 million USD.
Today, HIV has a relevance problem. Young people think that the disease is no longer a real threat and moreover, that they are not at risk. As successful as we’ve been with our model—still the only one of its kind in the space—we know we need to think differently to stem the tide of apathy. We at MAC decided that we needed to tap deeply into our roots and draw upon the type of bold outspoken action that led to RuPaul stepping in as the first VIVA GLAM spokesperson, and not only to continue the fight, but to use our voice to make HIV relevant again to a generation that should be concerned.
We’ve done something we’ve never done before: We made a movie. Trust me when I say it was a lot more difficult than those four words might imply, but the end result is one that is completely aligned with our urgent agenda. The film, It’s Not Over, has one purpose and one purpose only: To connect with younger viewers in an authentic way that informs and ignites action around the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis.
To help us accomplish this, we reached out to a young, up-and-coming documentary filmmaker, Andrew Jenks. It’s Not Over is now available on Netflix, Pivot Television and SnagFilms. We’re thankful to have the support of UNAIDS as well, validation that we need to reach young people in different ways, educating our way to impact. Crucially, we made a decision early on to exclude all commercial messaging from the film; there are no mentions of VIVA GLAM, the MAC AIDS Fund or our celebrity spokesmodels. Instead, it’s simply a story of three young people from around the world whose lives are impacted by HIV in different ways. That alone is powerful enough; we’re letting them do the talking. Had we loaded the film with branding, young people would never have tuned in, let alone allowed its messages to sink in.
It’s Not Over opens with the words from an ancient Chinese proverb: "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand." Please join us in the effort to reach and involve youth in the effort to end HIV/AIDS once and for all. Otherwise, in our and our kids’ lifetimes, AIDS will not be over.