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Op-ed: Talk About HIV Today, End It Tomorrow

Op-ed: Talk About HIV Today, End It Tomorrow


HIV is still a crisis, says Rep. Barbara Lee, but an AIDS-free generation is in sight.

Today, we commemorate National Gay Men's HIV/AIDS Awareness Day -- a day to highlight the epidemic's impact on gay men and to illuminate the work being done to end this epidemic in this community. I am proud that the Global Forum on MSM and HIV calls Oakland and my district home. This organization continues to do amazing work to address this epidemic among men who have sex with men.

The first step in awareness is to understand today's HIV epidemic. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I continue to fight to ensure federal funds for important programs like the Ryan White program and Minority AIDS Initiative. Unfortunately, this is not a priority for my Republican counterparts. Republicans on the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee have failed to introduce a spending bill for the last two years or mark up a bill for the last five years.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and my fellow Democrats have introduced legislation to assure a real federal commitment to addressing HIV and AIDS and the other important federal areas funded by this subcommittee. In the recently introduced Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bill, Democrats included $79 million above the current funding level for the Ryan White program, including $53 million for the Minority AIDS Initiative.

As a lifelong activist and cochair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Congressional Caucus, I have a special sense of mission and commitment to stopping this epidemic. Despite the strides we have made in treating HIV, the annual number of new infections in the United States has remained at approximately 50,000 for the past decade. The rate of new infection is far too high and disproportionately affects communities of color. HIV continues to disproportionately affect MSM and gay men of color.

As we address this epidemic, we cannot leave anyone behind. African-American gay and bisexual men accounted for approximately 10,600 new HIV infections in 2010, while Latino gay and bisexual men accounted for an estimated 6,700 new HIV infections in the same period.

While new HIV treatments have dramatically increased the lifespan of people living with HIV, we must control the rate of new infections by educating people on the risks, promoting regular testing, and getting individuals into treatment. HIV treatment can reduce the risk of passing the infection on to others by 96 percent. However, there remains a clear asymmetry in access to testing, treatment, and care.

Yesterday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data about gay and bisexual men diagnosed with HIV in 2010. Only slightly more than 50 percent stayed in care, despite nearly 78 percent being linked with care. However, this data also showed stark disparities for young gay men of color. Only 37 percent of young black men and 41 percent of young Latino men have achieved viral suppression.

We must do more to fully capitalize on the benefits of antiretroviral therapy -- both for individual health and for prevention. In an effort to get individual into treatment, the CDC recently launched an innovative national campaign, HIV Treatment Works. The public relations program is designed to urge people to access treatment and medical care for HIV and AIDS.

As the CDC rolls out its campaign, elected leaders, pop culture icons, and civic groups must carry this message to ensure that everyone knows what resources are available for testing and treatment. The discussion about getting people into care must move from medical experts and policy leaders to the kitchen table. More conversations are needed between parents and children, between friends, and particularly in young gay men's social circles.

We can and must start to turn the tide of new infections. It starts with all of us being open and direct about what causes infection, how to prevent infection, where one can get tested, and how one can access treatment.

We must prioritize the groups most disproportionately affected by this epidemic, and we must ensure that health care is accessible to these communities.

We know that while the project of ensuring access to health care has been greatly advanced with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, work still remains to make sure that care is within reach for all.

We must reduce the stigma that prevents many from getting testing and seeking treatment.

As we, united, embark on this journey, we know that we can address this epidemic and achieve the dream of an AIDS-free generation.

CONGRESSWOMAN BARBARA LEE represents California's 13th Congressional District. She is a member of the House Appropriations and Budget Committees. She serves as a cochair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus and vice chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus.

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