Today is World Aids Day, and I wanted to reflect on the history of AIDS in America. On Nov. 7, 1991 Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced he was HIV positive. It was a milestone in the global awareness of a condition that sometimes leads to AIDS. His bravery in coming forward at that point in time was noted, as were the many tasteless jokes and prognostications on his impending death.

Thankfully the jokes have faded, and like Mark Twain, the news reports on the death of Johnson were greatly exaggerated. He continues to live a full and highly successful life.

Charlie Sheen announced two weeks ago that he is HIV positive and like Johnson, there was a media frenzy, though this time it lasted a few days at best. We’ve come a long way in the battle against a disease that knows no face, color, gender, age or race.

In the early 80’s it was a nightmare of devastation. Gay men were dying by the dozens; the medical industry had no idea what to do, how to handle it, what it was and how it was transmitted. People died in shame, alone, cared for by their friends because the doctors and nurses were overwhelmed, scared and unprepared.

AIDS had various names in the early days, GRID – Gay Related Immune Disorder, Valley Fever, the Gay Cancer. It was not a happy time to be living in Northern California where I was.

Grassroots responses were anger, sympathy, frustration, and a mad dash to channel the pain and suffering into something, anything, that could be constructive. Groups were formed – slogans were created – some people started quilting to create remembrances of those lost.

The Names Project Quilt is a project whereby friends make a 3 foot by 6 foot panel that honors an AIDS victim. Eight panels make up a block, which are then sewn together. Each block is categorized and indexed so that it is searchable on the Names Project website (www.aidsquilt.org) and can be viewed. The Quilt itself has been displayed in full in San Francisco, D.C. on the Mall and pieces of it around the country.

Attending a display of the Quilt is a moving experience. The room or setting is unusually quiet but for the occasional sobbing and comforting of friends and family. I remember when I first saw the Quilt in San Francisco’s Moscone Center – I was a young lad in my early 20s and it was extremely moving and painful. The scope of the loss of human life was overpowering. The creative souls struck down in their primes – many of the panels have dates of birth and death so you can see how old the victim was – was so scary to me, it still affects me to this day.              

Today though, we have come a long way. Awareness has increased, treatments have been improved; most Americans who test positive end up in treatment and reduce their viral load to a level that is undetectable. For those who are sexually active in high risk communities   gay men, IV drug users, those who have multiple sexual partners – there is PrEP, which stands for Pre-exposure prophylaxis,- not a vaccine per se, but a protocol that has been shown in a Centers for Disease Control study to be 100 percent in preventing new HIV infections when used in conjunction with safer sex guidelines.

It is an amazing development and the story of AIDS continues to unfold. Some communities still experience high rates of infection due to willful blindness to prevention measures, ignorance of the costs of the disease and globally, there are communities that are still woefully ignorant about how to prevent it, slow the progression of the disease once infected or are too poor to afford the treatments.

In Santa Monica, we are blessed to have Common Grounds, an outreach program from the Venice Family Clinic to test for HIV. The test itself is simple, painless and results are returned in about half an hour usually when the oral swab test is performed.

Knowledge is power, but testing for your status can be scary – I know when I first went to get tested, even though I had a very low risk sexual history, I was still nervous. That was and is a result of the early days when I saw men with Kaposi’s Sarcoma on the streets, we rarely see that today, except for those who traditionally had it, real old men of Mediterranean descent.

For more information on where to test in Santa Monica you can go to CommonGroundHIV.org. They have two facilities in town, the most visible is Common Ground located at 2401 Lincoln Blvd., where they test Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. The other is mainly for students at Santa Monica College (in the nurse’s office) 1900 Pico Blvd., every other Thursday, 2 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

If you want to trek to Venice, you can go to the Venice Family Clinic located at 604 Rose Ave., Monday and Friday from 2 p.m.- 5 p.m. or Tuesday and Wednesday from 5 p.m. – 7 p.m.

Today being HIV positive is a manageable condition, with proper care, you’re likely to live a long and healthy life, which is why everyone should get tested if you’ve been sexually active.

Knowing is better than not knowing.

David Pisarra is a Los Angeles Divorce and Child Custody Lawyer specializing in Father’s and Men’s Rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist.  He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached at dpisarra@pisarra.com or 310/664-9969.You can follow him on Twitter @davidpisarra.