Healthcare

One of Biden’s first priorities must be addressing another health crisis: HIV and AIDS

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It’s been less than a year since COVID-19 began ravaging the United States, and there are already at least two impressively effective vaccines on the verge of approval and distribution. This is great news in a pandemic that has killed over 300,000 people in the U.S. and over 1.5 million people globally. The response begs the question: Why haven’t we done the same for AIDS, which has killed about 32.7 million people?

Joe Biden has a comprehensive plan for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, but his incoming administration must also prioritize meaningful, interagency, and multilateral global efforts around HIV/AIDS, so those at highest risk can access the education, resources, and medication needed to prevent or manage the disease. It’s been two decades since the start of the HIV epidemic and it’s beyond time that we take the HIV/AIDS crisis seriously. We need to address its root causes now, before things get even worse.

Like so many other things fundamental to the public’s well-being, the outgoing administration gutted the nation’s HIV/AIDS response. It disbanded an advisory panel in existence since the Reagan years by firing the members that didn’t quit in protest of its lack of compassion for people living with the virus. It cut prevention response in its 2018 budget, and kept the Office of National AIDS Policy vacant.

Though he subsequently resuscitated the advisory panel, and his 2020 budget proposal recommended boosting domestic AIDS response by $291 million — which, pales in comparison to the billions spent on COVID research thus far — Trump simultaneously gutted global outlays, which has the net effect of doing little to nothing to eradicate the virus. By his side, lest we forget, is a vice president who oversaw an HIV spike in Indiana thanks to his reluctance to allow clean needle exchanges in the thick of the opioid crisis.

The past 40 years have seen some progress in the HIV/AIDS fight: it’s now a disease that many people live with, rather than die from, thanks to medications that keep viral loads low-to-undetectable for long periods. This is especially true for white communities who are not still dealing with the sigma and shame that too often shrouds conversations about sex and sexual health in Black and Latinx communities.

In spite of noteworthy progress, HIV is still an epidemic in this country. About 1.2 million people are living with HIV in America today, and one in seven of them don’t know it, be it thanks to stigma or the shameful lack of health care access here.

HIV/AIDS disproportionately impacts Black Americans, who make up 43 percent of all new HIV diagnoses despite being only 13 percent of the population, according to recent CDC data, and experience 44 percent of related deaths. Black gay, bisexual, and same gender loving men experience 26 percent of new HIV diagnoses. Most alarmingly, about 44 percent of Black trans women are diagnosed with HIV.

With a new administration comes a new opportunity to put eradicating HIV/AIDS back at the forefront of our national agenda, where it belongs. On World AIDS Day earlier this month, the Biden-Harris team pledged to recommit to addressing HIV/AIDS, including reopening the Office of National AIDS Policy and rejoining the global fight. But they need to go further.

Increasing resources around HIV/AIDS must remain a top priority when Biden takes office next month. This looks like:

  • Leading and investing in coordinated interagency response to end the transmission of HIV/AIDS, including by increasing access to medical interventions like PrEP and PEP; increasing the rate at which Black and Latinx people living with HIV are undetectable; and decrease shame and stigma concerning sexually transmitted infections in ways that are democratized and that acknowledge intersectional disproportionality; and
  • Ensuring that federal investments in COVID research and related responses include meaningful, representative participation from diverse Black communities, especially in clinical trials funded or otherwise supported by federal agencies.

The country is about to tame COVID-19 in record time. It’s time to do the same for HIV/AIDS.

David Johns is executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition and Angela Yee is co-host of “The Breakfast Club.”

Tags HIV/AIDS Joe Biden

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