When Best Supporting Actor winner Jared Leto dedicated his Oscar to “the 36 million people who lost their life to AIDS,” plenty of eyebrows shot up in living rooms. The movie for which Leto and Best Actor winner Matthew McConaughey were honored, “Dallas Buyers Club,” chronicled the early days of the epidemic, when treatments were scant. Now, with far more effective drug treatments available, it’s tempting to look at the AIDS crisis in the rearview mirror.
That’s why Leto’s speech was important. Coming early in the evening, and from an actor with credibility among young viewers, he had a better chance than most to persuade young people that the battle against AIDS is far from won, despite the numbers of new reported cases being significantly lower than they were in the 1980s. Currently, parts of Washington, D.C., are facing higher HIV rates than parts of Rwanda and Ethiopia. In the United States, the South has been hit particularly hard; nearly 50 percent of new diagnoses occur in the region. And one in four new reported cases of the HIV virus in the United States is a person aged 13 to 24, a horrifying statistic for any parent who lived through the first AIDS crisis.
Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted that today’s high schoolers are no longer as fearful of AIDS as their parents were. Rates are creeping up again among young gay men of color, enough to merit a new $55 million information drive. Still, that may not be as effective as Leto’s speech, which should be a wake-up call to many.