PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — This month marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The disease has claimed the lives of about 700,000 Americans since 1981.
In the past 20 years, infections and deaths have fallen dramatically thanks to awareness and new treatments.
Most people know drag queen Melissa St. John as the "first lady of the Palm Beaches". But aside from her passion of performing on stage, she has another passion of which you may not be aware. She's been an HIV/AIDS activist and advocate for the past 30 years.
“I really went through the AIDS epidemic a lot. In regard to that, every roommate that I’ve ever had from when I left home, for the exception of two, passed away from AIDS. There were so many people that I sat with and held their hands for their last breath,” said St. John.
Those experiences led her to get involved in organizations that would help those surviving with the disease.
“That's kind of how I dealt with it. Although you know, it’s a sad occasion or situation when someone you live with passes away. But it made me stronger that way. So, I thought I want to get more involved and create events or fundraisers or be involved in those that were already created in order to spend the message on being safe and make sure you get tested,” said St. John.
A notable one is called Mother’s Cupboard.
“We decided to form this troop or group of individuals, talented people of drag, live singers you know. It was called Mother’s Cupboard,” said St. John. “So, we would go around the county and sometimes outside of Palm Beach County and we do shows with everyone involved to raise money for the organization.”
Right now, antiretroviral therapy helps patients live longer and healthier lives while lowering the risk of transmission. The daily pill known as ‘Prep’ prevents those at high risk from getting infected. But still, 37,000 people are diagnosed with HIV each year and around one million are living with it in the U.S.
Melissa would like to see the day when there’s a cure. For now, she hopes the makeup, the wigs, and the ensembles will not only entertain audiences but continue to raise awareness in the fight against AIDS.
“Make a difference, not only in your life, but in other lives also... in a positive way,” said St. John.
A new CDC study just released shows new annual HIV infections decreased 73% from the beginning of the AIDS epidemic to now. Health officials say that is a result of the work of scientists, patients and activists.