“It’s possible for us to end the AIDS epidemic in Massachusetts.”
I spoke those words in a news story last June, and I believe them even more strongly at the dawn of 2014.
After years of complacency, momentum is building once again to finally end this epidemic. On World AIDS Day Dec. 1, seven world leaders announced they were boosting contributions to the global fund to combat HIV/AIDS, including a $1 billion increase from President Obama. The United Nations reports that the number of new HIV infections has dropped from 3.4 million in 2001 to 2.3 million in 2012—a 33 percent decrease.
Nationally, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act means access to treatment and prevention for thousands of people living with the virus or at risk of being infected. And in the wake of statistics showing that young black and Latino men who have sex with men comprise the majority of new infections in the U.S., the LGBT movement is giving renewed attention to fighting the epidemic. And, as I wrote last month, the issue of HIV/AIDS is currently a hot topic in our popular culture and the mainstream media (although I wish the news they were delivering was brighter).
Here in Massachusetts, we have succeeded in dramatically reducing the number of new diagnosese of HIV from 1,369 in 1999 to 657 in 2011. Until we have a vaccine, the only way we can wipe out HIV in Massachusetts and elsewhere is by preventing new infections and ensuring that people living with HIV maintain good health, since a healthy HIV-positive person is significantly less likely to transmit the virus.
So we need to keep up the pressure on law and policy makers, health insurers, health care providers and the advocacy community to maintain the moral and political will to eradicate this disease. Now is not the time to level-fund or cut HIV prevention and treatment programs, which for years have struggled in the face of apathy and drastic budget cuts. Preventing and treating HIV not only saves lives, it saves money: our research shows that the 52 percent reduction in new diagnoses we’ve achieved over the last 14 years in Massachusetts will save the state more than $2.4 billion in HIV-related health care costs.
As advocates and community support service providers we must research and develop new programs aimed at reaching those most vulnerable to HIV infection: gay and bisexual men; transgender women; and people of color. We must forge new partnerships that will broaden our thinking and our strategies to prevent new infections. We must bring all of those who are living with HIV into the health care system and provide them with the support they need to maintain their health. We must tackle the root causes of HIV by educating the public and health professionals about the need for prevention and care, and advocate for fair and effective treatment at the city, state and federal levels.
We will—eventually—get to zero.
Rebecca Haag is CEO of AIDS Action Committee.
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