Most people know Elton John as the man responsible for crafting some of music’s most undeniable anthems. For over 25 years, though, the iconic piano rocker has also used his voice to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The Elton John AIDS Foundation has also raised more than $350 million over the past quarter century to combat stigma, prevent infections, provide treatment and services, and motivate governments to end AIDS.
Learning from tragedy
Elton John lost his close friend Ryan White to HIV/AIDS. When Ryan was diagnosed, he and his family were cruelly ostracized by the community because he was HIV positive. They inspired Elton because they responded to hatred and ignorance with love, understanding and education. They turned their tragedy into an opportunity to make things better for hundreds of thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS.
This inspired Elton to create the Elton John AIDS Foundation. John believes he was rescued from the depths of addiction by the immersing himself in the cause.
“Losing Ryan on April 8, 1990, and watching [his family] deal with their grief with such profound grace and humility motivated me to finally take control of my life, get sober and find new purpose in my determination to honor Ryan’s extraordinary legacy.”
Slow but steady progress
Although tremendous scientific progress has been achieved in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, the ramifications of the disease are still devastating.
“In many ways, the challenges and hurdles we faced in the early 1990s are the same problems and barriers we face today,” he explains. “AIDS is still very much a disease of poverty, a disease of willful neglect, a disease of stigma and discrimination, a disease of hate.”
For millions of people around the world, universal access to prevention, treatment and health care continues to be a concern. “AIDS thrives in places where people are made to feel ashamed — or worse, are criminalized — for their gender, race or sexuality,” John outlines.
The cost of stigma
Today the Elton John AIDS Foundation works to combat stigma, prevent HIV infections, ensure universal HIV treatment for all who need it and pressure governments to end AIDS.
“This disease exists because our society finds it awfully easy to turn its back on people who are ‘different’ — the LGBT community, sex workers, drug users, prisoners, the poor and the uneducated,” he asserts. “We will only end this disease when we can find it in our hearts to love every human being on this earth. When we can do that, the barriers will melt away.”
While HIV affects Americans from all walks of life, the epidemic continues to disproportionately impact gay and bisexual men, transgender women, youth ages 13-24 and communities of color. In fact, research by the Human Rights Campaign suggests the number of new infections amongst young black gay and bisexual men is two times greater than their white counterparts.
Elton’s message for these communities? “Know that you are loved and that there are people out there who care about you and about your health. You are not alone.”
The path forward
Until recently, prevention efforts in the United States have not been focused on or funded in the communities hit hardest by the epidemic. Thankfully, that’s beginning to change.
“We’ve made so much progress in the fight against AIDS since the early days of this epidemic,” the singer says. “But if we’re going to see the end of AIDS in our lifetime, we need to do more.”
Today, around $15 billion is being invested in programs to fight AIDS in the developing world. Experts have determined that it would take only an additional $5 to 7 billion per year to scale up programs.
The scientific tools now available to end HIV would not end the epidemic unless they were rolled out to all the marginalized and stigmatized people of the world; which is why Elton believes we must invest in the power of dialogue.
“The most important thing anyone can do in this fight is show love and compassion; to stand up against hatred and discrimination,” he urges. “We could stop this epidemic in its tracks, without a vaccine or a cure, if we made universal access to HIV prevention and treatment a reality worldwide.”