Empire State Building, New York City Mark World AIDS Day




The Empire State Building lit red to mark World AIDS Day

The Empire State Building lights up red as part of the city's World AIDS Day events. Photo: Associated Press

When the Empire State building lit up red in February 2009 to honor China’s Communist revolution, it sparked widespread complaints. But the building also lights up red for World Aids Day on Dec 1.

The red floodlights, made up of three panels on the upper sections of the building, including its radio tower, gave the skyscraper  a striking glow, and was part of a larger effort to publicize the continuing effort to eradicate AIDS. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the diagnosis of the first case of AIDS  and the 20th anniversary of the red ribbon—the symbol of the AIDS campaign. The color red was chosen for the AIDS ribbon in 1991 by a group of New York visual artists, who decided, after a process of elimination of symbolic associations, that red was vibrant and attention-getting.

This isn’t the first time for the Empire State Building lit up red for this purpose—it has been marking World Aids Day in this way since 2008, in partnership with the AIDS awareness charity ‘(Red)’ which was founded in 2006 by Irish pop star Bono and Bobby Shriver. Other landmark buildings around the world—like the Sydney Opera House, the London Eye and Cape Town’s Table Mountain—were also lit red for World AIDS Day.

The Empire State Building has been using its floodlights to match seasonal and special events (including Mets and Yankees home games and religious festivals) since 1964. To become ‘lighting partners’, businesses and other entities can apply through the Empire State Building’s lighting partnership scheme, where their application is reviewed by an anonymous committee. The Empire State Building’s public relations firm, Edelman, oversees this process, but it is protocol that Empire State Building staff do not comment on it. The lights on New York City’s most famous skyscraper change color every few days.

This highly visible method of calling attention to the AIDS epidemic using a building central to New York’s identity, is fitting for the cause. New York was hit especially hard by the early AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Still today, according to the New York City Department of Health, the rate of infection among New Yorkers is three times the national average, and HIV remains the third leading cause of death for New Yorkers between the ages of 35 and 54. New York is also the state with the highest number of people living with the disease—although this latter statistic can reflect important treatment advances for those diagnosed: “It can be seen as a small victory,” said Dan O’Connell, a deputy director at the New York State Department of Health Aids Institute. “Because it means there are more people living with the disease for decades after their diagnosis and with effective treatment, who can live relatively normal lives.” O’Connell has worked in AIDS research for 24 years.

Still, the infection rate in New York City is growing, and it disproportionately affects Hispanics and blacks—who represent 80 percent of new HIV cases. O’Connell explained that events and awareness campaigns are a welcome complement to AIDS research: “It reminds people that AIDS  is still there. Anything that we as the government do on the awareness front could take resources away from the patient care focus, so this is an effective partnership,” said O’Connell. “People like Bono and Elton John do what they’re best at and put their names behind it so that people still know what the red ribbon means, when there are really quite a few ribbons out there now.”

“We are involved with the social media discourse to stay relevant, but for us, patient care and medicine must take priority over awareness,” said O’Connell. “The disease is no longer as visible as it was in the 1980s—in that way, the research and awareness campaigns are almost a victim of their own success—so private foundations like these do a fantastic job of getting people’s attention.”

The red Empire State Building may have been the city’s most visible tribute to the day—but much more went on at street level.  Church vigils, lighting ceremonies with celebrities, and marches all took place over the week. Housing Works, a social enterprise combating AIDS and poverty, organized a march with the Occupy Wall Street movement to call for increased spending on AIDS and other diseases. “New York being an urban center, where gaps between rich and poor are larger, contributed to its AIDS problem,” said Susannah Lupert, vice president of Housing Works’s Bookstore Café. Housing Works sprang up out of the AIDS activism tradition of the 1980s and ‘ACT-UP’–a volunteer group campaigning for awareness and solutions. “As the middle class disappears and gaps between rich and poor widen, this is an ongoing issue,” said Lupert. “World AIDS Day is important for recognition, but we do things on a daily basis.”

On Sunday, Planned Parenthood NYC organized a flash mob in Union Square, with about 100 people dancing and singing a pre-determined chant to raise awareness about infection rates and the importance of protection—giving out free condoms and directing people to free testing stations. “An HIV/AIDS test needs to be as common as getting your blood pressure checked, said Joan Malin, chief executive of Planned Parenthood NYC.  “We need to integrate HIV/AIDS prevention and care into our every day lives.”

New York state has robust AIDS treatment, prevention, and support programs, however. Thanks to aggressive strategies to curb the state’s high infection rates, O’Connell explained, there has been some success in lowering HIV infection via intravenous drug use and mother-to-child transmission. Clean needle exchanges have helped lower the infection rate via drug use from over 50 percent to 6 percent. Pregnant women are tested for HIV and those with the disease are offered anti-retroviral drugs, which significantly lower the likelihood of transmitting the disease to the child.

In addition, in New York state there is no waiting list to receive anti-retrovirals, and there are programs to treat those without health insurance.  New York City’s department of health also took steps early on to combat the disease and the state and the city both invest significant financial resources to AIDS research. “New York’s willingness to be aggressive in fighting AIDS really helped combat the epidemic,” said O’Connell. “This was particularly important for setting up socially unpopular programs like needle exchanges.”