By Brad Lundahl, Program Associate
In the 35 years since its discovery, over 35 million people have died from AIDS. In 2016, despite numerous advances in treatment, an estimated 2.1 million people around the world will contract HIV and 1.1 million will succumb to AIDS-related illnesses—about 240 every hour. These numbers are terrifying and challenge the commonly held belief that the AIDS epidemic is largely under control. It’s not, but it can be.
World AIDS Day calls on us to remember those who we have lost to AIDS, provide effective and affordable care to those living with HIV, and commit to ending the dangerous discrimination and social stigma they face everyday. Most importantly, it calls on us to reflect on how together, we can create an AIDS-free world.
These goals are not out of reach, and Equality California is leading the way to make many of them a reality by focusing on three key objectives: access to affordable anti-retroviral treatment, adoption of new HIV prevention tools, and progressive HIV legislative reforms.
Equality California, along with other LGBT and health organizations have spear-headed efforts to increase statewide funding for HIV/AIDS care, prevention, and medication assistance programs to ensure the 137,000 Californians living with HIV are on effective treatment and new diagnoses are dramatically reduced.
This access to treatment is critical. New studies on the mechanics of HIV and how it is transmitted have shown that HIV-positive individuals who consistently take their medication and reach “undetectable” status—extremely low levels of HIV in the blood—are unable to transmit the virus to others. Known as Treatment-as-Prevention (TasP), this strategy has the potential to dramatically reduce HIV transmission rates in California and around the globe, but it’s not the only revolutionary development in the HIV arena.
Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis or PrEP, approved by the FDA in 2012, involves HIV-negative individuals taking the medication, Truvada, to prevent HIV. Numerous studies have shown that, if taken daily, PrEP is up to 99% effective in protecting against HIV. This is a game-changer in HIV prevention. As a gay man currently on PrEP, it represents an opportunity to take control of my own sexual health and protect myself and those I care about. But unfortunately, many healthcare providers and LGBT community members are unaware of its existence or efficacy. Additionally, those most at risk for HIV, including gay men and transwomen of color, may also face challenges accessing care and affording the medication. With estimates from the Centers for Disease Control that fully half of African-American men and a quarter of Latino men will contract HIV in their lifetimes, access to PrEP is crucial.
That’s why Equality California created the #TakeIt: I’m PrEPed campaign to educate members of the LGBT community, healthcare providers, and legislators on the effectiveness of PrEP and to ensure at-risk community members are able to access this fantastic prevention tool.
Finally, Equality California is committed to modernizing and repealing HIV transmission laws that single out and stigmatize people living with HIV. Most of the laws which criminalize HIV status, in California, and around the world, were adopted in the 1980s and 1990s—a time of public fear and ignorance about HIV and how it is transmitted. In many cases, these draconian laws impose harsh penalties even when there has been no transmission or risk of exposure, resulting in felony offenses and multi-year sentences. Outside of California—particularly in parts of the developing world—the situation is even worse, with some HIV-positive individuals being locked away for decades or facing the death penalty. These laws are not only unjust, but they perpetuate dangerous HIV stigma and discourage people from learning their HIV status and seeking treatment.
Equality California, in partnership with Californians for HIV Criminalization Reform—a coalition of social justice, civil rights, and AIDS organizations—is working to bring California’s laws in line with our current understanding of HIV and current treatments like PrEP and TasP, which virtually eliminate transmission risk, and to advance our nation’s public health strategy.
For the first time in our history, we have the tools and knowledge to end the AIDS epidemic. Equality California is fighting to make sure that our state takes a leadership role in this endeavor and sets the blueprint for other states and countries to follow.
But, as we remember those 35 million lives lost, and stand in solidarity with the millions of people living with HIV around the world, it is critical that we acknowledge the privilege we are afforded living in the United States.
Our greatest technological, treatment and prevention advances in the fight against HIV, and our legislative and social justice triumphs, must be extended deep into the poorest countries and most vulnerable populations if we are to finally claim victory over this deadly disease.