This year saw a remarkable number of advances in the fight against HIV infection, both medical and policy-related. Those advances have made it possible for us to set our sights on ending the epidemic, which disproportionately affects African Americans.
It remains true that black people are the racial group most affected by HIV/AIDS in the United States, with a rate of infection that is 8 times the rate in white people. However, just as in the general population, African American death rates from HIV infection are declining.
A number of developments happened in 2015 that relate to the impact of HIV/AIDS in the black community. Though this is by no means a comprehensive list, below are five developments worth noting, some which will hopefully continue the progress toward ending the epidemic:
1. Lower HIV death rates among black people
New CDC data released in February brought the promising news that death rates among blacks with HIV declined 28 percent between 2008 and 2012. The report did not provide a specific reason for the decline, though the director of the agency's Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, Eugene McCray, MD, noted nearly half of people reached by CDC testing programs in 2013 were black and most African Americans living with HIV are aware of their infections. "HIV testing is the critical first step towards accessing effective care and prevention services," said McCray.
Since the epidemic began, over 270,000 black people with AIDS have died.
2. State of HIV in Black America and State of HIV in Black LGBTQ People forums launched
The State of HIV in Black America, which seeks to refocus public attention on the HIV/AIDS crisis disproportionately impacting black communities, was livestreamed in February to assembled audiences in cities across New York State and the nation. White House officials, AIDS activists, elected officials, clergy, health practitioners, and direct service providers were among the 200 gathered at the Schomburg Center in NYC, from which the live stream originated.
The forum was organized by the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA), of which I am president and CEO. It was followed up later in the month by a State of HIV meeting in Tampa, FL to address the HIV prevention and care needs of LGBTQ individuals. Both events gave stakeholders in the battle an opportunity to share insights and coordinate their efforts.
This coming February 4, 2016, NBLCA will reconvene the State of HIV in Black America forum at the Schomburg Center (again livestreamed to events in Detroit, MI; Tampa Bay, FL; Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester, NY; with other cities being added) to address the current science of HIV/AIDS and identify the steps needed to end the epidemic in line with 2020 action plans.
3. The National AIDS Strategy updated to 2020
In July the federal plan for addressing the epidemic was updated to cover five years. Its vision: "The United States will become a place where new HIV infections are rare and when they do occur, every person regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or socio-economic circumstance, will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination." Among its goals is reducing HIV-related health disparities and inequities, which can benefit thousands of African Americans each year if executed effectively.
Meanwhile, New York State (the state with the fourth-highest number of HIV diagnoses in 2013) adopted its own Ending the Epidemic by 2020 [PDF] blueprint to reduce new HIV infections to 750 annually in 2020, from an estimated 3,000 per year today. Last year I was appointed to the New York State's Ending the Epidemic Task Force. Also, NBLCA received a Commissioner's Special Recognition Award from the New York State Department of Health earlier this month for supporting the goal to get the epidemic under control.
4. HIV prevention treatment shown to be very effective
In a new study reported in September, 100 percent of participants taking the HIV prevention pill Truvada as a daily pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) treatment remained infection-free. This adds to the evidence that PrEP can be a powerful tool in lowering the rate of new HIV infections, in addition to more traditional methods, such as condom use and abstinence.
People who are in relationships in which one partner is HIV-positive and the other one knows they are uninfected; sex workers; IV drug users; or people in abusive situations where they lack the ability to say no to condomless sex, are among those who can benefit by PrEP's added protection. Yet, black people in general are less likely to know about or have access to PrEP than whites.
If you are not familiar with PrEP, take a look at my previous column about it.
5. We lost Dr. Beny J Primm
Sadly, in October the world lost a pioneer in HIV prevention and treatment advocacy. Beny J. Primm, MD died in New Rochelle, NY at the age of 87. As an official from the U.S. Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy noted, "He is widely credited, along with Congresswoman Maxine Waters, as the architect of the 1998 Congressional Minority AIDS Initiative, which has allocated millions of dollars across the nation to help community-based organizations, research institutions, healthcare organizations, and state and local health departments address HIV and AIDS within the minority populations they serve."
An authority on intravenous drug use and its treatment since the 1970s, Dr. Primm expanded his attention to HIV/AIDS after he began seeing cases among IV drug users in the mid-1980s. He went on to serve on the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic and the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, among several federal appointments. He also was a longtime vice chair of NBLCA. As NBLCA founder and board member Debra Fraser-Howze put it, "Dr. Primm was sounding the alarm on AIDS to black leaders before we knew there was a problem in our community."
Of course, now that we know there's a problem, and that the tools are available to address it, we must commit ourselves to keep moving in the right direction. As a nation we must be willing to target resources, including testing, education, as well as access to prevention tools and treatments, to the communities that need them most.
The mission of NBLCA is to support these efforts and to continue to empower groups and leaders within communities to help end the HIV/AIDS epidemic among their black residents.
Over the last year, we opened offices in the New York State cities of Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse to support the efforts of local activists, leaders, people living with HIV/AIDS and stakeholders. We facilitated HIV awareness and PrEP education, through summits, workshops and webinars; and hosted a town hall meeting focused on ending the epidemic in transgender people.
As a new year approaches, we encourage you to take on the mission of lowering HIV infections to your own community, whether you partner with an NBLCA affiliate in your area or get involved in other ways. If you choose the latter option, visiting AIDS.gov is a good place to start.
Have a happy and healthy 2016!