02/21/2013 02:36 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Running the Anchor Leg

Last week began with President Obama's reminder in his State of the Union address of the promise of an AIDS-free generation. It ended with a reminder that many obstacles exist along the road to fulfilling that promise, as the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA) ceased operations.

Clearly, we have made great strides towards ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States. We have new diagnostic tools, new surveillance tools, new prevention tools and new treatment tools as well as new policy tools: the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and the Affordable Care Act. None of these advances would have been possible without the leadership of people living with HIV/AIDS.

We know what to do to end the epidemic. Yet, there are roughly 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States, and nearly fifty thousand new HIV infections every year. Only 25 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in the U.S. have successfully suppressed their viral load. Seventy five percent of people living with HIV either don't know they are infected, are not in care or are in sub-optimal care.

The most efficient, effective, and humane way to get to an AIDS-free generation is to help the 75 percent of us living with HIV reach viral suppression -- and you can't do that without active engagement of people living with HIV/AIDS. As one of the only national PLWHA-led HIV/AIDS organizations in the country, the Black AIDS Institute is committed to supporting a strong independent HIV-positive voice in the fight against AIDS.

People living with HIV have to be able to disclose our HIV status. When we do we personify the positive outcomes that can happen when people with HIV/AIDS have the love and support of family and friends and access to the medical care we need and deserve. We can also be living witnesses to the negative outcomes that can happen when we are denied those things. PLWHA make the best case for ending the AIDS epidemic. But our country and our community need to create an environment where people with HIV can freely disclose our HIV status in a fashion that is appropriate for us and without fear of discrimination, stigma or reprisal.

Achieving an AIDS-free generation will require a better understanding of the science and treatment of today's epidemic. We need to raise health literacy in all our communities and people living with HIV/AIDS need to be at the forefront. We can be the best teachers and the best information-transfer agents on this topic.

The policy and advocacy fight to end AIDS has moved to the local and state level, particularly in the South. We need to build local networks of people living with HIV to serve as mentors, treatment navigators and advocates so our country can fully implement the Affordable Care Act and develop appropriate health-finance mechanisms to allow PLWHA to access early care and treatment and to ensure that new biomedical interventions are fully integrated into prevention strategies.

NAPWA's demise comes as the domestic HIV/AIDS epidemic is at a deciding moment. If this were a sporting event, it would be the finals at 4 x 100 meter relays at the 2012 Olympics. The outcome of the domestic epidemic depends upon who runs the anchor leg. We can win the race. But now is not the time to leave Carmelita Jeter on the sidelines.

Neil Lowe, Ph.D. is the Chairman of the Board of the Black AIDS Institute
Jesse Milan, Jr., J.D. is the Chair Emeritus of the Black AIDS Institute.
Phill Wilson is the President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute

About the Black AIDS Institute:
Founded in May of 1999, the Black AIDS Institute is the only national HIV/AIDS think tank in the United States focused exclusively on Black people. The Institute's mission is to stop the AIDS pandemic in Black communities by engaging and mobilizing Black institutions and individuals in efforts to confront HIV. The Institute interprets public and private sector HIV policies, conducts trainings, offers technical assistance, disseminates information and provides advocacy and mobilization from a uniquely and unapologetically Black point of view.