NEW YORK -- Expert leaders from five diverse local, national and international organizations underscored the urgent need to work together to end AIDS, during a lively panel discussion Tuesday evening.
The panelists represented a broad cross-section from the frontlines of the battle against HIV/AIDS: Mary T. Bassett, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; Mark Feinberg, President & CEO, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI); Charles King, President & CEO, Housing Works and Co-Chair of Governor Cuomo’s New York State End-AIDS Task Force; Kelsey Louie, CEO, GMHC and Member, Governor Cuomo’s New York State End-AIDS Task Force; and Chase Strangio, Staff Attorney, ACLU LGBT & AIDS Project.
They gathered at the Housing Works Bookstore Café in Manhattan for “It’s About Time: Together We Can End AIDS,” a World AIDS Day event that drew about 200 attendees. It was moderated by Mo Rocca, correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning.
HIV has infected 80 million people and killed half of them. In 2014, 1.5 million people contracted HIV and 1.2 million people died. AIDS is the leading killer of women of reproductive age and the #2 killer of adolescents. Two thirds of infections and deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. In the United States, more than 1.2 million people live with HIV, and almost 13% don’t know it. More than half of all infections in the US are among men who have sex with men.
The key takeaway of Tuesday’s discussion was: Despite major gains, this complex epidemic must be fought urgently, collaboratively and on many fronts, each of which has its own unique challenges.
In the US, “HIV and AIDS are driven by social inequities, marginalization, poverty,” said King. “We need to end the stigma. Food, clothing and shelter are essential to keeping someone virally suppressed. If we don't address these issues, we won't solve the problem.”
Louie added that untreated mental health also drives the epidemic, particularly in New York.
“Medical care is wonderful and it’s a basic human right,” concurred Bassett, “but it’s not enough to keep people healthy. What concerns me is the issue of adherence, whether from the prevention or treatment angle, and the many ways that our healthcare system is fragmented. The concern is that people don't take their medicines regularly and get the full benefit.”
“We need to invest in the most at-risk populations” said Strangio, adding that legal and stigma barriers also remain high. “We need to end the criminalization of having a positive HIV status – there’s an absolute incentive to not knowing your status.”
Looking at the HIV prevention and treatment options available today, several panelists noted the less-than-optimal condom use in many at-risk populations. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) offers an excellent alternative for many, but Louie noted that “stigma around using PrEP can be the worst enemy to its usage.”
While condoms, antiretroviral treatment and PrEP all work effectively when used regularly, Feinberg said, they often aren’t realistic options for many people most at risk from HIV/AIDS, such as women in sub-Saharan Africa. “The epidemic will never sustainably end without a vaccine. Researchers must go after HIV as creatively as we can. We’re having to do things that have never been done before. The science is amazing.”
“We have to support all efforts to end the epidemic,” Louie said. “Science is telling us that we are increasingly closer to a vaccine and a cure. A vaccine would be a game-changer – but it won’t help those already infected.”