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Onyx reviews: Love is the Cure by Elton John

Sir Elton John's life has been interesting and varied enough that he could easily have found a lot to write about in his first book. He's been a mainstay of the pop charts for four decades. His flamboyant lifestyle has been fodder for tabloids and mainstream media alike. He has moved in elevated circles, both in his native England, where he was friends with Princess Diana, and in the US, which he regards as a second home. He has played Madison Square Gardens more than any other performer, and he has the biggest-selling single of all time according to the Guinness Book of Records. 

Instead, he chose to shine the spotlight on the current state of the AIDS crisis. By his own admission, he remained on the sidelines for far too long in the disease's early years. He was consumed by his own personal issues: addictions to drugs, alcohol and food. He learned about Ryan White, the young boy who became the most visible face of AIDS in the 1980s, the same way everyone else did: through a cover article in People magazine he read in a doctor's waiting room. He became incensed at the way the boy, who was infected by a contaminated drug used to treat his hemophilia, was treated by his community. He reached out to the family and supported them emotionally for the duration of Ryan's short life.

Ryan's upbeat attitude caused the musician to reevaluate his life. Before he could help anyone else, he had to get clean, which he did in the late eighties. It's not as if the crisis hadn't touched his life before then. He knew many people who were infected and died of AIDS. In fact, he credits pure luck that he didn't contract the disease because of his lifestyle. He needed a kick in the rear, and he got it. In 1992, he created the Elton John Aids Foundation (EJAF) and for the past two decades he's been at the forefront of the fund-raising effort to sponsor charities around the globe.

The book's subtitle is "On Life, Loss, and the End of AIDS." Its emphasis, though, is primarily on the third component: ending AIDS, a goal that he feels is attainable except for one factor. The disease's main victims are homosexuals, drug users and prison inmates—not a group that attracts much sympathy from the general populace. This is true in America, but the situation is even worse in other countries, where homosexuality is illegal.

The musician hands out blame and credit in equal measure. He reserves a significant dose of blame for himself for not using his celebrity, connection and considerable resources earlier. However, he directly blames politicians like Ronald Reagan, religious figures like Jerry Falwell, and political leaders in other nations, such as the Ukraine and South Africa for being responsible for hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of deaths because of their policies and proclamations. On the other hand, he mentions unlikely allies, people like Senator Orrin Hatch and former President George W. Bush, with whom he shares almost no political views but who both stood up on behalf of AIDS victims and encouraged the government to open its coffers and fund research, treatment and education programs. Credit where credit is due, he seems to say. He doesn't have to agree with every politician's policies to find common ground on this one important subject.

The EJAF made an important decision from the beginning. Rather than duplicating the efforts of existing organizations, they would concentrate their efforts on fundraising and on making sure the money ended up where it could make the most impact. This kept their overhead down and made use of existing infrastructures. The US branch handles North America and the Caribbean, while the British branch covers most of the rest of the world. In his book Elton John discusses some of the programs they have supported and why they've been so important and effective.

He sees AIDS as a disease that could be essentially eradicated. Current drug therapy has turned AIDS from a death sentence into a disease that people can live long lives with. The drug regimen not only reduces the symptoms in patients, it reduces the chance that it will be transmitted. With increased funding worldwide that amounts to the rounding error of the US national budget, AIDS patients could be treated globally. However, that will never happen so long as the disease's primary victims are stigmatized. That is the essence of his thesis: that love is the cure. Treating people with AIDS—or those at greatest risk of being infected—humanely. His message is inspirational and it's not a pie-in-the-sky hope. His foundation's successes demonstrate that the approach can be effective.

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