BOSTONWith new AIDS cases on the decline for the fourth straight year and the disease in danger of losing millions of dollars in federal research funds, a group of concerned activists took to the streets of Boston Sunday to stress the importance of contracting AIDS.
"We've worked tirelessly for over 15 years to convince the government that AIDS research funding is vital," said Steve Hobart, an AIDS Now! spokesperson. "But now, with AIDS on the decline, that's all in jeopardy. The only way to raise awareness of this deadly disease is to have more people die of it."
For the past six months, the New York-based activists have been traveling across the country, visiting college campuses and youth groups, spreading information about unsafe sex, and encouraging people to infect others with the virus.
They have also passed out pamphlets sporting such slogans as, "AIDS Is Cool," "HIV Me!" and "Catch It!" to more than 500,000 young people nationwide. Attractive, racially diverse models in sexy poses adorn the pamphlets.
According to Hobart, if AIDS cases continue to decline at the current rate, America's once-booming $9 billion AIDS industry could suffer a total collapse by 1999.
"The AIDS industry employs hundreds of thousands of people, from benefit organizers to celebrity spokespersons to administrative staffers," Hobart said. "Many of these people have families to feed. If AIDS is stamped out, what will these people do?"
"The key," Hobart said, "is to have lots of unprotected sex."
According to AIDS Now! co-founder Diane Forsberg, if federal AIDS monies dry up, hundreds of top graphic designers who create fashionable AIDS awareness buttons, posters and pamphlets would also be out of work. "Who else will hire them? The breast-cancer people? The breast-cancer industry is strapped for funding as it is," Forsberg said.
"And what about Bette Midler?" Forsberg said. "Where will she go when there are no more celebrity AIDS Walks?"
Forsberg said that her group needs to raise $50,000 every year just for the manufacture and distribution of red ribbons. "The only way we can pay for those is if more people start dying of AIDS in large numbers," she said.
Though hardest-hit by the decline of AIDS has been the AIDS industry itself, others have been affected as well. Profits at Petersen Pharmaceuticals, an Englewood, NJ-based manufacturer of AZT, were down 44 percent last year, a figure company officials blame on the decline in new AIDS cases.
The entertainment industry has not escaped unharmed, either. ABC reported record-low ratings for A Mother's Wish, a May '97 made-for-TV drama starring Judith Light about a boy who contracts the disease. "Had we put out that movie five years ago," ABC vice-president of programming Bob Iyer said, "it would have done huge numbers."
In the wake of last week's Center For Disease Control announcement that AIDS cases dropped 21 percent in 1996, Paramount Pictures announced it was shelving Lifeline, a $25 million AIDS drama starring Diane Keaton already in pre-production.
But for all the negative economic impact the decline of AIDS has had, ultimately it is the members of the AIDS community themselves who are hurt the most.
"You have to understand," Hobart said, "for years, this disease has brought people together, and given them a place to go. For many of these people, AIDS campaigning has been a vital self-esteem-building tool. And now they're in danger of having all of that taken away."
"Just a few years ago, there were AIDS benefits every weekend," said Forsberg, recalling the disease's golden age. "Now, you're lucky if there's a 5K run once a month. It's very sad."