Kelsie Louie, the author, last World AIDS Day (photo: Donna Aceto)
For over 35 years, HIV has plagued communities around the world. In the initial years that followed its discovery, our elected officials and social institutions failed to address the epidemic as it unfolded. Those who were falling ill faced tremendous danger and anxiety with no recourse in sight. Organizations like GMHC, ACT UP, Housing Works, and so many others were founded to not only provide a support system and educate the public, but to fortify a voice that would compel our leaders to take the AIDS crisis, and its victims, seriously.
This World AIDS Day -- Thursday, December 1 -- marks not only a day of remembrance and mourning for those we have lost, but also a turning point in our efforts to defeat the epidemic. After decades of deficient and half-hearted policies to address HIV, the United States has a National HIV/AIDS strategy, and, with aggressive pledges to end the epidemic in their respective jurisdictions, communities such as New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Fulton County, Georgia are leading the charge to end AIDS.
Aside from pledges and press conferences, we have actually seen elected and government officials affirm their commitment to these efforts.
This past summer, officials in Fulton County, Georgia, unveiled an ambitious plan to eradicate HIV in the Atlanta metro area. According to the federal Center for Disease Control (CDC), an astonishing 1 in 51 Georgians will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. County officials have set out to provide free, routine opt-out HIV testing in all healthcare settings and jails to decrease the number of new HIV diagnoses by 25 percent, increase the number of free condoms distributed from 2.3 million to 3.5 million, and link 85 percent of people who test positive for HIV to care within three days.
Here in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Ending the Epidemic Blueprint has served as a catalyst to expand funding and services across the state. For instance, in New York City, we have been successful in expanding rental assistance benefits to almost all low-income individuals living with HIV.
The blueprint has produced tangible results. On Tuesday, the New York City Department of Health released data showing that the number of new infections has dropped to 2,493 in 2015, the first time that annual infection figures have dropped below 2,500 since the HIV crisis began. The Department also made a monumental announcement – for the first time, in 2015, there were no mother-to-child HIV transmissions.
Until we see similar progress in all places, not just Fulton County and New York, our work is not complete. The South now experiences the greatest burden of HIV infection, illness, and deaths of any U.S. region, and lags far behind in providing quality HIV prevention and care. At-risk groups nationwide, particularly communities of color, transgender women, and men who have sex with men, continue to face institutional barriers that prevent easy and affordable access to testing, treatment and prevention.
I have great concern about the current national climate, which includes significant uncertainty over the future of federal health care policy. Depending on the course taken by Congress and the next President, we may be forced to confront new challenges in reducing HIV transmission rates and ending the epidemic. Local, regional, and state governments may be forced to pick up the torch in order to avoid moving backwards. Right now, we need more local elected leaders to act on ending HIV and AIDS in their communities. When they do, I am confident that we will collectively end this epidemic.
Thirty-five years ago, the feat of ending AIDS appeared impossible, but today, I believe our darkest days are behind us. We have overcome past inaction and complacency, and we must proactively continue to fight because we cannot afford to waste any opportunity to create an AIDS-free generation.
Kelsey Louie is the CEO of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. On Twitter: @GMHC.