Today is World AIDS Day, and as an African-American physician focused on women's health, I'm especially aware of the challenge HIV/AIDS poses to the black community. I divide my time between New York and Florida -- two states that have substantial African-American populations and some of the highest HIV infection rates in the country. So, I know all too well that there is still a lot of work to do to fight this pandemic in our communities.
HIV infection is an almost entirely a preventable disease, yet it remains epidemic in the African-American community. We account for almost half of all HIV infections in the U.S., and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in 16 black men and one in 32 black women will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. These numbers are simply too high, and part of the reason is that many of us believe we can't be infected or exposed to a sexual partner with HIV. That life-threatening falsehood fuels a cultural stigma about regular testing for HIV, which can save lives. As a result, too many of us are going undiagnosed and untreated, putting our lives and our partners' lives at risk.
Stigma isn't our only roadblock to ending the HIV epidemic. People of color are also more likely to be uninsured or under-insured than Caucasians, and, therefore, we're often delayed in getting care because of cost. But thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), 3.8 million African-Americans stand to gain health care coverage, providing millions of women, men, and young people access to HIV screening, education and, if needed, treatment that they otherwise would not have had. As a part of the ACA's preventive care benefits, insurers will be required to cover annual counseling and screening for HIV infection with no co-pay for all sexually active women, as well as HIV screening for adolescents and adults ages 13-64, who are at higher risk for contracting HIV. This could help reduce the annual rate of HIV transmission in the U.S. by ensuring that more people get regularly tested and counseled about how to prevent HIV, and by ensuring that those who are HIV positive receive timely treatment.
But if we really want to win the war against HIV, testing and counseling must become a routine part of care for everyone -- not just those most at risk. That's why I was so excited when the United States Preventive Services Task Force recently recommended that all Americans aged 15-65 -- not just those at higher risk -- receive routine HIV testing. If that recommendation is adopted, and the Affordable Care Act is implemented as intended, insurers will cover HIV screenings for people aged 15-65 with no co-pay -- making screenings much more accessible to millions, and helping to stunt the growth of HIV rates in our communities.
Making testing a routine part of care is something that Planned Parenthood takes very seriously, and Planned Parenthood health centers are working every day to get more people educated about HIV, tested and into treatment if they need it. In 2011, Planned Parenthood provided 680,000 HIV tests -- 16 percent more than we did in 2010. A few years ago, we co-founded the Get Yourself Tested (GYT) campaign as a way of raising awareness among young people about the need for periodic STI, including HIV, testing. In recent years, Planned Parenthood health centers also switched to rapid HIV tests so that patients can know their status by the end of a health care visit.
All of these measures are aimed at creating an AIDS-free generation. But, doing so will take organizations and individuals battling the virus on every front. That starts with realizing that HIV testing should be a routine part of your care if you're sexually active, and that you should protect yourself and your partner by using condoms -- either the male and female version -- and dental dams to prevent to prevent the spread of HIV. There is no stigma in getting tested, and there is no shame in practicing safer sex. It's about maintaining good health!
Education, prevention, and testing are the means to ending this epidemic. With new investments in the health of our communities and the advent of technology that can educate and communicate with more people than ever before, we have the tools to end the HIV epidemic and in particular curb the toll it takes on the African-American community. Talk to your friends and family about this global problem, and make sure your loved ones get the information and care they need and deserve.
For more information about how to prevent HIV, get tested, select an appropriate method of birth control, and find a local health center, visit Plannedparenthood.org.