The Protection Racket

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"We're trying to run a community mobilization project," Darrow says. "I thought if you took two sticks and rubbed them together, sparks would fly and before you know it, you'd start a fire. Well, we're still rubbing our sticks, but nobody seems to be very interested."

With the advent of pharmaceutical drug cocktails that have helped reduce the death rate from AIDS, the epidemic has somewhat faded from the headlines. Asian bird flu? That's new, scary — sexy — even if it remains remote for the time being. HIV? Hmm, is that still a problem?

Just before World AIDS Day on December 1, Darrow sent out an op-ed piece to local newspapers, urging George Bush's administration to get serious about fully funding HIV prevention work. "Reversing trends in HIV transmission in South Florida requires a long-term commitment to disease prevention," he wrote. No one published the article.

As one local newspaper reporter recently told a Reach 2010 employee looking for coverage, "Call me when you've got a cure."

The monetary cost of the AIDS epidemic is in the billions of dollars, but the human price is incalculably high.

Carmen Letizia lives in a crowded efficiency apartment south of downtown Fort Lauderdale, from which his entry door opens toward a busy street. In the middle of his Formica kitchen table is a bowl-sized plastic jar with an orange lid that holds the daily regimen of antiviral drugs he takes every day.

Letizia has a long face and puffy hair that has ceded some territory to his forehead after 46 years. He's ultraslim, a result of the AIDS wasting condition that robs the body of muscle.

He's gregarious, though, with a snappy sense of humor — a trait perhaps heightened after living with HIV for more than two decades. When the subject of preventing HIV infections is raised, he laughs and says, "If they'd had more of it 20 years ago, I wouldn't be in this position today. Nobody was talking about having condoms while having sex."

A volunteer at the Broward House, Letizia gives the county a high grade for its work with HIV/AIDS, but it hasn't been enough. "The problem is, people don't care about the disease anymore. It's been around for years and years and years. A few beers and a couple of joints and people don't care; they'd rather have sex with anybody. The bar crowd won't have protective sex because they don't like wearing condoms."

Letizia learned for certain that he was HIV-positive in 1985, although he suspected it long before that time. He didn't exactly live an austere life up until then, but it probably was in comparison to the years that followed.

"The devastation was like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to die,'" he recalls. "I became an IV drug user in 1986. I was on self-destruct." He lived on, though, even as friends and acquaintances died while taking AZT, the first treatment found for the disease. He didn't start taking medication until the late 1990s, and the first regimen he took had such intense side effects that he ended up using a wheelchair for two years.

But he's tolerated far better a new course of pills he began a couple of years ago. Sitting at his kitchen table, he lifts the pill pot. "Before, I was taking seven pills three times a day," he says. "Now, I take six pills once a day in the morning." The pills cost several thousand dollars a month, he says, and are paid for by the federal government because he's on full disability.

Now a Christian, Letizia says he's clean and sober and doesn't have sex with anyone. Abstinence isn't on religious principle alone. "I could get infected worse because there are different strains of HIV," he says, "and there's other things I could pick up."

While he's personally hopeful, Letizia does lament the public's weariness over the disease. "I think the AIDS epidemic is on a back burner," he says. "People are fed up with AIDS, AIDS, AIDS — they don't want to hear about it."

Just back from Amsterdam over the holiday break, Darrow sits in his tiny office in Trailer 7, the home of Reach 2010 headquarters. The walls are covered with watercolor paintings by his 6-year-old son, Dreis.

Darrow seems a bundle of nerves, though he confesses to feeling jetlag from the trip back from Holland, where his wife, Susan, is from. Every few minutes, he repositions himself in his desk chair. His restless demeanor isn't what you'd expect after seeing him portrayed by Richard Masur in the 1993 HBO film And the Band Played On, based on Randy Shilts' book that traced the spread of the disease. Masur, chunky and bearded, was as laid-back as a cartoon bear as he tracked down answers to the riddle of AIDS.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson