By Barbara Lee
Today, we celebrate National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and reflect on the tremendous strides we have made in the fight against HIV since the epidemic first began. We are making progress towards an AIDS-free generation, but our work is far from over. To achieve this goal, we need to do more to address the unequal burden of this epidemic on the African American community.
Despite increased awareness campaigns and prevention efforts, African Americans are overrepresented in new transmissions.
According to the Center for Disease Control, black, gay, and bisexual men account for the highest number of new HIV diagnoses. Black gay men are at the highest risk of any population – research indicates that one in two will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime.
Black women are also disproportionately affected by HIV. The HIV diagnosis rate remains at a staggering 16 times that of white women, and five times the rate of Latinas. And the sad reality is that African Americans living with HIV not only have to bear the weight of HIV/AIDS stigma, but also racism.
Rather than treat these sobering statistics as a foregone conclusion, we should see them as a call to action. If we work together, we can change these numbers – and save lives.
If we are serious about ending the epidemic, we must work from a culturally sensitive framework to reduce disparities in access to education, testing and treatment.
We must honestly acknowledge the impacts of institutional and structural racism in healthcare, which is a major barrier to care in the African American community.
We must openly discuss the persistent impacts of societal and cultural stigma around HIV and AIDS. In order to provide quality preventative care, we need to change the outdated culture of fear and discrimination around the virus.
We need to ensure that students – in all classrooms – are taught comprehensive sex education, so that young people can take charge of their health from day one.
We must ensure resources are allocated to the communities with the highest need.
And, finally, we must recognize the inherent dignity of every human being. That includes the right of all people – regardless of race, zip code, or income – to have quality health care at an affordable price.
As advocates, we must leave no stone unturned and also recognize that our efforts must not end at our borders.
That is why I have worked with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, including President George W. Bush, to craft the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) which has saved millions of lives around the world.
We have blazed a trail forward, but President Trump is trying to roll back this progress.
Instead of advancing the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, President Trump has dismissed the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIIDS (PACHA) and failed to appoint a new director for the Office on National AIDS Policy. These actions have crippled our response to the crisis and sent a worrying signal to experts, activists and patients.
Coupled with the Trump Budget, which proposed one billion dollars in cuts to HIV funding, many are rightly questioning whether the Trump Administration is trying to undermine decades of bipartisan efforts to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
As co-founder and co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, I recently wrote to President Trump urging him to continue our longstanding commitment against the epidemic – but my letter has been met with silence.
We cannot allow inaction and stonewalling from this administration undermine the progress we have made over the past two decades. People are living long, happy lives with HIV – but they deserve a commitment from their government to end this epidemic.
I will continue to hold this administration accountable. I will not allow us to return to the days when the AIDS epidemic was willfully ignored by our government. And I will not be silent as people of color – and especially African Americans – bear the brunt of this public health crisis.
We can make an AIDS-free generation a reality, but we cannot leave anyone behind in the process.