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40 years on, the battle against the AIDS epidemic is now focused on ending it

City leaders and activists shared stories and hopes Wednesday on World AIDS Day at the soon-to-be-completed AIDS Garden Chicago.

Visitors get a sneak peek Wednesday at the soon-to-be-completed AIDS Garden Chicago — on World AIDS Day.
Visitors get a sneak peek Wednesday at the soon-to-be-completed AIDS Garden Chicago.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

With the almost-complete AIDS Garden Chicago as a backdrop, city leaders and activists Wednesday celebrated the progress that’s been made tackling the disease since the epidemic began some 40 years ago — when a positive test result was all but a death sentence.

“We have the potential to end the HIV epidemic,” John Peller, president and CEO of AIDS Foundation of Chicago, speaking on World AIDS Day.

Statewide, the number of new HIV infections has dropped by about 16 % since 2009 and 26% in the city during the same time frame, Peller said.

He also pointed out that HIV-related gains vary significantly by race. In about 60% of white people living with HIV in the city, the disease is considered virally suppressed, meaning the amount in the body is very low — keeping the immune system working and preventing illness. But the figure drops to 50% for the city’s Latino population and 45% for African American community, Peller said.

Peller blamed racism, homophobia and poverty among other things for the racial differences.

“That’s a lot of isms and challenges that we need to address at the societal level,” he said.

Peller described as “tremendously super, super exciting” a new injectable HIV prevention medicine patients would take every two months. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve the drug in late January, Peller said.

“Imagine that someone can go to the doctor, get an injection and be almost completely protected against HIV. It’s really pretty unbelievable,” he said.

The new AIDS garden is just south of Belmont Harbor and near the old “Belmont Rocks,” a place where members of the LGBTQ community have gathered through the years. It became a safe space for the community, but also a place where some came to scatter the ashes of loved ones taken by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), who is openly gay, called the space “sacred ground” at the ground-breaking ceremony earlier this year. The garden is expected to open in spring 2022.

When it’s complete, the 2.5-acre site will be home to a series of gardens designed for “reflection, education, honor and pride.” The focal point is the 30-foot-tall Keith Haring sculpture installed in late 2019 and titled “Self-Portrait.”