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AIDS: Getting to zero

12/11/2015, 7:05 a.m.
“Three decades into this crisis, let us set our sights on achieving the “three zeros” ­— zero new HIV infections, ...
Marc H. Morial

Marc H. Morial

“Three decades into this crisis, let us set our sights on achieving the “three zeros” ­— zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths. On this World AIDS Day, let us pledge to work together to realize this vision for all of the world’s people.” — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, United Nations, World AIDS Day 2010

More than 30 years ago, America and nations around the world came face to face with HIV/AIDS — a devastating global, public health concern that decimated cities, communities and countries alike. In the three decades since its discovery, much has changed — and thankfully — much has improved. Today, advancements in prevention and treatment have led to a significant reduction in HIV transmission. The expansion of HIV screening and testing has resulted in far more people knowing their HIV status and getting help early. And new and better drugs are allowing those infected with HIV/AIDS to lead longer and better quality lives. That’s the good news.

But the news that should give us pause is that while we stand undisputedly victorious on a variety of battlefronts against this devastating epidemic, we are losing a costly war — one that primarily claims young, male and female African-Americans and Latinos as its victims.

HIV/AIDS does not discriminate. Sexual orientation, race or gender cannot protect you from HIV infection. But unfortunately, in far too many cases, those factors could increase your risk of infection. An estimated 1.2 million people are living with HIV infection in the United States today. Compared to other races and ethnic groups, African-Americans and Hispanics are the groups most affected by HIV, accounting for a higher proportion of new HIV infections, of those living with HIV and of those ever diagnosed with AIDS.

In 2010, African-Americans accounted for 44 percent of all new HIV infections. While African-Americans are 12 percent of the U.S. population, in 2011, they accounted for 41 percent of people living with HIV. Hispanics represent 16 percent of the population, but accounted for 20 percent of those living with HIV. In 2010, Hispanics accounted for 21 percent of new HIV infections.

Numbers are graver still for African-American women. Centers for Disease Control statistics point to AIDS as the fourth leading cause of death among African-American women ages 35 to 44. According to the latest statistics, African-American women accounted for 64 percent of new HIV infections. Hispanic women accounted for 15 percent of all new infections and white women accounted for 18 percent.

To win the war on HIV/AIDS and to achieve the three zeroes, we cannot approach the epidemic as a standalone public health crisis. Our nation must develop a multi-pronged approach to HIV/AIDS that also addresses equal access to health care and civil rights.

The lack of access to health care must be addressed in communities of color if we are going to effectively address the prevalence of this disease. While the Affordable Care Act has expanded the coverage of HIV prevention services and medical care, it can work only where it exists. It comes as no surprise that in states that rejected the ACA, which also tend to be poorer states, HIV/AIDS remains at crisis levels. One in every eight people diagnosed with HIV is unaware of their status.