HIV discrimination still a challenge 30 years later

Despite U.S. efforts, however, the world is truly at a tipping point and we must not be complacent. AIDS is still the greatest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime. Thirty-four million people are living with HIV globally. Of the 15 million people medically recommended for anti-retroviral medication, only half have access to the drug treatment. This means some 8 million people still await treatment, including more than 5,000 people in our country.  

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African-Americans — especially women and young men who have sex with men — face the most severe burden of HIV in the United States. And with domestic poverty rates on the rise, there is real concern that income inequality, homelessness and long-term unemployment will hinder outreach and prevention efforts in the most critical communities as well as create barriers to effective treatment for those with the virus.

In order to make progress in our communities and throughout the world, scientific discoveries must be combined with scaling-up combination HIV prevention approaches. This includes increasing access to male and female condoms, organizing wide-scale efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission, focusing on vulnerable populations and being real about comprehensive sex education.  

We must also work hard to reduce stigma and eliminate discrimination in our communities to better identify and provide care for people living with HIV. Today, 34 states and two U.S. territories have statutes that specifically criminalize people living with HIV. In fact, there are cases where people living with HIV have been given sentences of 10 to 30 years in jail — even in the absence of HIV transmission or in the aftermath of consensual behavior. 

It is critical that we reform laws that are based on outdated science and end the prosecution of individuals for actions that pose no measurable risk of transmission. First, the laws reflect long-outdated beliefs and were adopted before scientific research was available regarding how the virus could be transmitted and not transmitted. More importantly, discriminatory laws are counterproductive to efforts that encourage everyone to know their status. In the United States alone, 1 in 5 do not know they are HIV positive — and they miss out on the promise of treatment at the same time they put current and future partners are risk. 

We must overcome legal barriers to expanding and improving our response to HIV/AIDS. That is why I introduced H.R. 3053, the Repeal Existing Policies that Encourage and Allow Legal (REPEAL) HIV Discrimination Act. The bill requires the attorney general, secretary of Health and Human Services and secretary of Defense to work with stakeholders to review federal and state laws, policies, regulations and judicial proceedings that involve criminal cases against people living with HIV/AIDS, and to provide support for education and reform initiatives. As the United States representative to the United Nations Global Commission on HIV and the Law, I can tell you that this is a top priority here in the United States.

From 1987, travelers and immigrants with HIV were barred from entering the United States — a ban that was rooted in fear rather than fact. The ban was an unjust policy that kept people from disclosing their status and prevented talented educators and researchers from working in the U.S. I am proud to have played an important role in overturning this discriminatory travel ban in 2008 — and now for the first time in 20 years, the International AIDS Conference returns to U.S. soil in July 2012. 

If we are going get a handle on this epidemic, laws that fuel stigma, fear, discrimination, distrust and hatred have no place in the United States or anywhere. Science and medical research have vastly changed our understanding of the virus and its transmission. And now is the time to modernize our laws to reflect this reality. Our global leadership will never be more important than at this promising moment as we work to eradicate HIV and end the AIDS crisis in the United States and around the world. 

Lee serves on the House Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Services and Education. She co-authored legislation creating the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.