In the early ’80s, when AIDS first became part of the public consciousness, many of us were terrified of this new, mysterious disease. Far too many lost their lives as doctors struggled to learn more about the illness so they could develop treatments that worked. Thirty years later, we know enough about AIDS to understand how it can be transmitted, how to protect ourselves from the virus that causes it and how to treat those who have it so they can live long and relatively healthy lives.
Because of this, AIDS has become an afterthought for many who think the disease is someone else’s problem, that it’s easy to treat and that their risk for infection is low. The reality is that nearly 56,000 people become infected each year with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and more than 1.1 million Americans are living with the virus. Though AIDS deaths have decreased since the early days of the disease, more than 14,000 American still die each year from AIDS-related complications.
President Obama understands what too many of us do not: HIV/AIDS is still a pressing issue in this country and that a comprehensive federal strategy is needed to combat it. To that end, the president has proposed a plan that aims to reduce this country’s HIV infection rates by 25 percent in five years. The plan, the first national strategy of its kind, will also expand early access to medicines, improving the quality of life for those who do become infected with the virus. Unfortunately, the money the federal government uses to fight AIDS doesn’t always make it into the communities that need it most. While the president’s plan doesn’t increase the $19 billion it spends to fight HIV/AIDS, it rethinks how and where those dollars are spent and will redirect funds to those hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic: gay and bisexual men and African-Americans.
Currently, gay and bisexual men account for slightly more than half of new HIV infections while African-Americans make up around 46 percent of new infections. Under the proposed plan, agencies that serve these hard hit populations will see increases in their funding. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the president promises to work to end treatment, housing and employment discrimination issues that plague people infected with HIV.
This plan is an ambitious one. But it is necessary. HIV/AIDS is still a very real threat to so many, especially our Black women, who make up more than 6 percent of new HIV cases among all women and who are more than 21 times as likely to die from HIV/AIDS as White women. We owe it to ourselves—and future generations—to not only applaud the president’s new approach but to also take it into our own hands to keep ourselves safe and healthy. For more information on HIV/AIDS prevention, visit http://www.greaterthan.org/
(Judge Greg Mathis is vice president of RainbowPUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)