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National AIDS Strategy Provides Welcome, Albeit Overdue, Framework

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During the darkest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, our cries for help from the federal government often fell on deaf ears. The lack of timely, reliable information about the nature of the illness and the outright ignorance that emanated from many in positions of power created the perfect conditions for HIV and AIDS to spread almost unimpeded. In response, communities around the country took it upon themselves to raise awareness and prod our leaders into action. Although we have made progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS, that initial urgency has waned, and we have been left with a patchwork of efforts that have failed to end this health emergency. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is still a crisis in this country -- one that is particularly devastating among disadvantaged communities.

For years, HRC, AIDS Action and many others have called for a coordinated, comprehensive strategy to combat this crisis. Today, in announcing a National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS), our federal government has begun to answer this call.

The National HIV/AIDS Strategy is oriented towards making significant strides around three critical goals that have long been considered the core of a successful program to end this epidemic: to reduce the number of new HIV infections; to increase care for HIV-positive individuals; and to eliminate HIV-related health disparities that disproportionally affect certain demographic and geographic segments of the population. We have known for years that people of color and men who have sex with men (MSM) have been devastated by this epidemic. The numbers alone are staggering. In 2006, African Americans made up 12 percent of the general population, but nearly half (46%) of all people living with HIV. That same study showed that MSM represent 48 percent of all people living with HIV in the US. Often, these communities are concentrated in higher density areas that are in need of a targeted program, addressing the spectrum of social and economic structures that create vulnerability to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

With the CDC estimating over 56,300 new HIV infections occurring each year, we have a moral obligation to stop the spread of this crisis now. The new NHAS can provide a framework for prevention that focuses on developing model, science-based sexual health programs that are held to account in yielding results. These programs can be bolstered through initiatives that combat the stigma and discrimination associated with people who either have or are at a higher risk of contracting HIV, which so often acts as a barrier to proper testing and care. We need to make HIV testing a regular, reimbursable standard of care in clinical settings as a part of a broader effort to reform our health care system. Thousands who are living with HIV and AIDS are on waiting lists for the life saving drugs that they are too often denied by our broken healthcare system. There is no reason why we cannot adequately fund the AIDS Drug Assistance Program to provide this basic level of care to those who need it. And we need to adequately fund research that supports the NHAS goals, especially by focusing on communities of color, MSM, transgender populations, and those who struggle with intravenous substance abuse.

The development of a national strategy to combat HIV and AIDS is long overdue. In order to succeed at reducing new infections, mortality rates, and unequal access to care, we need to keep up the pressure on the administration and Congress to follow through with the resources that have been withheld for far too long. Our communities need not only more funding for these programs, but better targeted funding for programs that are backed by science and held accountable to produce results. We must remember that the NHAS is only a framework that is still in need of a detailed plan of action. By focusing our efforts around a few bold goals with clearly definable results, we can compel lawmakers and agency officials into action. Now is the time to get started.