COMPILED FROM STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS
As Washington hosts the 19th International AIDS Conference this week, residents in the nation’s capital continue to battle epidemic levels of HIV/AIDS – as does much of Black America – despite the stunning progress made in treating the illness.
According to a report released by the District’s Department of Health, the prevalence rate – or the proportion of cases within a given population – of HIV among adults and children living in D.C. is 3.2 percent. The World Health Organization states that a 1 percent prevalence rate in the general population meets the criteria for an HIV/AIDS epidemic.
End in sight?
President Obama lifted the 22-year-old order that banned people living with HIV/AIDS from traveling to the United States, paving the way for the conference to return to the United States for the first time in 22 years.
There was a refrain that was heard in almost every speech this week at the conference: Humanity is on the verge of ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic. That wasn’t a statement that could be made 30 years ago when the pandemic was first identified.
After studying the virus for more than 30 years and developing potent drugs that transformed the disease from a death sentence into a manageable chronic condition, a growing number of researchers now say the search for a cure should be a major research priority.
While acknowledging substantial challenges, they argue that the effort is necessary because the epidemic cannot be contained through treatment and prevention alone.
And recent medical and scientific advances – including the case of the first man definitively cured of the human immunodeficiency virus – offer proof that it’s possible.
The current solution
At the opening session Sunday night, Michael Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, said: “Now I want you to close your eyes. Listen to my words. We can end AIDS…Wear a condom, end AIDS. Give money, end AIDS.”
“…We decided to embark on a program that really tried to change the paradigm in Washington,” said Dr. Carl Dieffenbach of the Division of AIDS at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Dieffenbach said that getting tested has to become a badge of honor in the Black community, like it is in the gay community in San Francisco. The researcher also said that educating Blacks about the critically important role that clinical trials, such as those Earvin “Magic” Johnson participated in, play in fighting HIV/AIDS and stemming the tide of HIV infections.
Dieffenbach announced that NIH will be bringing a series of PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) demonstration projects and clinical trials. In the trials, HIV-negative people at risk of infection would take daily antiretroviral therapy to decrease their risk for becoming infected if exposed to HIV. According to the CDC, PrEP, when used as prescribed, has been shown to be effective in reducing the transmission of HIV in men who have sex with men (MSM).
Although MSM is the highest mode of HIV transmission for Whites (75.2 percent), a majority of Blacks (34.3 percent) contracted HIV through heterosexual contact, followed by MSM (24.3 percent). Clinical trials for MSM who live in D.C. will begin in August and another for women will begin later this year.
Can be ended
“We are on scientifically solid ground when we say we can end the HIV/AIDS pandemic,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told the audience of scientists, researchers and policymakers from around the world.
He added this caveat: “The end of AIDS will not be accomplished, however, without a major global commitment to make it happen. We have a historic opportunity – with science on our side – to make the achievement of an AIDS-free generation a reality.”
Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, made the same point when he followed Fauci. Unlike many Black males who were diagnosed with the disease in the 1980s, Wilson has beat the odds and kept himself alive since learning about his status 32 years ago.
“No, we don’t have a cure or a vaccine yet. But David only had a slingshot, and he felled Goliath. Our tools are far from perfect, but they are good enough to get the job done – if, and this is a big if, we use them efficiently, effectively, expeditiously, and compassionately.”
This week, the Black AIDS Institute also released a report he authored entitled the “State of AIDS Among Black Gay Men in America: Back of the Line.” Wilson hoped during the conference to shine a spotlight on how HIV/AIDS is at epidemic proportions among Blacks in America.
Gregorio Millet works for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and serves as the Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of National AIDS Policy.
Millet told the group about the White House’s national HIV/AIDS strategy, which has three goals: reduce the number of infections; get more people diagnosed; and reduce the racial disparity within HIV/AIDS cases.
Millet said there are 50,000 new cases every year. Most are Black – specifically Black women – and young gay men.
Better care in jail
“Black women comprise two-thirds of women’s new infections,” said Millet. He also shot down the myth that prisons and jails are “breeding grounds” for HIV/AIDS. He said people who are incarcerated are more likely to get the medications they need to survive.
Millet said once they are released from prisons and county jails, there are not enough transitional services for them to receive the same care they had while incarcerated.
Millet pointed out that high incarceration rate for Black men means there are fewer Black men available for Black women who exclusively date Black men. The high percentage of Black men who are HIV-positive makes it easier to transmit the disease to Black women.
He said men who are on the “down-low,” those having sex with men and women, is not only unique to Black men, and that bisexual men are statistically less likely to be HIV-positive. Millet said stigmatizing bisexual men makes it more likely that they will not get tested.
“There is already a problem with just getting Black men who have access to health care to go to the doctors,” he explained.
Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of HIV/AIDS for the CDC, informed the Black journalists that the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the Black community contributes to the high percentage of those being diagnosed, because most Blacks only have sex with other Blacks.
“We are in a vicious cycle in the African-American community,” he said. “When you meet a new partner, the chance of them having HIV is more prevalent and the chance of getting infected greater.”
James Harper of the Florida Courier; Freddie Allen and George E. Curry (NNPA) and Erin Loury of the Los Angeles Times (MCT) contributed to this report.