By Annette Hinkle
Michael Collins, program director at the David E. Rogers HIV/AIDS Center in Southampton who talks about a World AIDS Day event taking place at Bay Street Theatre on Thursday, December 5. The evening includes a panel discussion followed by a screening of “How to Survive a Plague” a documentary about 1980s and ‘90s AIDS activist groups like Act Up and TAG (Treatment Action Group).
How has the perception of HIV/AIDS and those who have the disease changed over the last 30 years?
It’s so amazing with all the medications now. We’ve gone from having no medications to today where there are 26 plus medications in different combinations that people can take. I think a lot of people really feel like AIDS is not such an issue for them personally. They may have other health issues that can cause death but not HIV. Everyone now can possibly live with AIDS.
When the disease first appeared, it ravaged the gay community and for that reason, much of mainstream America chose to ignore it. What was the climate like then?
It was a deadly combination. It was so easy to cut off this part of the population and not pay attention. That was one reason Act Up was so active.
For me personally, it was such a dark time. When you were going to funerals weekly, it was just totally devastating and overwhelming. I had to make a decision and I said, OK I can’t continue going to all these funerals. Someone close to me, yes, but that’s it.’ It was weird to have to cope that way. When there’s a funeral every week, sometimes two, it’s devastating.
What did Act Up accomplish with their brand of activism?
A lot of other activist groups like those associated with breast cancer have been created and I think it was kind of based on Act Up and bieng more assertive and aggressive with treatment and research. I think that started the foundation for it.
What is the prognosis now for someone contracting HIV in this country?
The medications are working and working really well. For some people there are some combinations that may cause severe side effects and they try different regiments. Usually there’s enough variety and choices to find something that works.
The CDC estimates the rate of infection remains stable from year to year. Why do you think it’s not dropping?
I think we’ve gone through this period of lax prevention education and we’re now seeing the effects of that. People think, ‘Oh there is medication for that I don’t have to worry about HIV.’ People don’t realize what it’s like to take the regiment for the rest of their lives.
Younger people growing up now don’t know what it was like in the early days. That’s one reason we wanted to do AIDS then and now. They don’t have an idea of what it’s like to lose a friend every week, going to five funerals a month and watching friends wasting away.
It was a different time.
Is the highest HIV at risk group still the same in this country?
It’s young gay males across the board – particularly African American males.
Why African Americans?
I think it’s just the whole education piece and the stigma. That’s still a big issue across the board and more so in the African American community.
What is the HIV infection situation on the East End?
It has been rather stable here on Long Island and our population has been rather consistent over the last 10 years. We’re also in an area where people come out from the city and go back. A couple years ago we saw a lot of new infections, but the last couple of years not so much.
How many people die in this country each year from AIDS these days?
It’s over 15,000 a year now.
What’s the main focus of the David E. Rogers M.D. Center??
The major goal is to provide mental and medical counseling and psychiatric services. We do try to continue with outreach and prevention education efforts. We also offer free HIV testing.
What should we expect at next week’s Bay Street Theatre event?
We’ll have guest speakers who are going to give us a picture of where we are now with medications and what’s coming down the pike as far as new medications. We also have two long term survivors who will give their personal story then and now. I think that should be really powerful.
Then there’s the movie, I think if people are not familiar with the early years, it will provide a lot of information.
Who do you see as the target audience for the event?
I think the target audience is any 18 to 30 year old — even high school students I think would be great to see there.
“AIDS: Then and Now” on Thursday, December 5, 2013 is co-sponsored by the David E. Rogers M.D. Center and Southampton Hospital in observance of World AIDS Day and is the kick off event for the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival. The presentation at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor is free, and begins with a 5 p.m. panel discussion followed by a break with light fare and cash bar and a 7 p.m. screening of the 2013 Academy Award-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague” directed by David France.