The annual U.S. Conference on AIDS (USCA) opened on Sunday, September 30, 2012. Among the highlights were two plenary sessions engaging the audience of over 2,000 in exploring important topics related to aligning efforts to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Spotlight on HIV/AIDS among Women
“Not without women will we turn the tide on HIV/AIDS,” declared the first plenary session’s facilitator, Ms. C. Virginia Fields, President/CEO, National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS . Putting the spotlight on women and HIV/AIDS in America, she shared the latest CDC data indicating that more than 260,000 U.S. women are living with HIV, comprising 24% of all diagnoses of HIV infection in the country. The data also show that women of color, particularly Black women, have been especially hard hit and represent the majority of new HIV infections and AIDS diagnoses among women, and the majority of women living with the disease. Her remarks laid the foundation for a series of presentations by women leaders from the HIV community discussing what is and can yet be done to turn the tide of the epidemic among women:
- Ensuring that prevention and care efforts focus not only on individual risk and vulnerability but also on structural factors and social determinants of health that also influence HIV, such as intimate partner violence, poverty, housing instability, and unemployment.
- Working to better understand and address the roles that trauma and violence pose to both HIV risk and suboptimal treatment outcomes for women. On this point, a panelist praised the recently established White House Working Group on the Intersection of HIV/AIDS, Violence Against Women and Girls, and Gender-Related Health Disparities.
- Expanding efforts to understand and address the unique HIV risks and HIV care needs of transgender women.
One way to better address the needs of women at risk for or living with HIV, suggested one participant, is ensuring that communities are prepared to take full advantage of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Dr. Bambi Gaddist, Executive Director, South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council , urged participants to “do their homework” about the ACA, stressing the importance of understanding the changes and opportunities that are unfolding and ensuring that they are able to help inform state-level decisions being made now and in the coming months that will impact health care options for women at risk for and living with HIV.
A key takeaway for participants from this session was Ms. Fields’ call for a greater sense of urgency to address women living with and at risk for HIV/AIDS in programs, funding, research and leadership at the community, state, regional and national levels.
SAMHSA Administrator Highlights Importance of Addressing Behavioral Health as Part of Efforts to End HIV
The first plenary session also featured Ms. Pamela Hyde, Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), who shared highlights of SAMHSA’s efforts to address HIV/AIDS while working to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. In discussing behavioral health challenges and opportunities to help to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, she reiterated that violence and trauma are significantly associated with increased risk for HIV infection and that untreated behavioral health disorders are among the top predictors of poor HIV treatment adherence. She also noted the importance of addressing co-morbid mental health conditions experienced by an estimated 50 percent of people living with HIV and expressed optimism that the Affordable Care Act’s provisions supporting integrated and coordinated care will have a positive effect on the nation’s ability to better address those conditions. Ms. Hyde also briefly discussed SAMHSA’s role in implementing the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, highlighting efforts underway at the agency to carefully align its portfolio of HIV grants – many supported by the Minority AIDS Initiative– with the Strategy. She also highlighted SAMHSA’s participation in the cross-HHS efforts to establish seven common core indicators for monitoring HHS-funded HIV prevention, treatment, and care services a common set of core of indicators for use across all HIV/AIDS programs funded by the Department.
Wendy Williams, Magic Johnson, and Other Guests Discuss Ending HIV in America
Ms. Wendy Williams hosted the day’s second plenary session, a special edition of her talk show featuring several guests including Magic Johnson. Among her guests was Dr. David Malebranche, a physician and researcher from the University of Pennsylvania, who examined some of the significant ways that HIV prevention, testing, and treatment have evolved over time, becoming ever more closely integrated. While hailing the great advances in biomedical approaches to prevention, Dr. Malebranche echoed one of the themes of the morning plenary when he observed that “HIV is a human disease and it follows structural inequities” which must also be addressed if we are to reach the goal of ending HIV/AIDS. Highlighting the “not so new face of HIV in America: young Black gay and bisexual men,” he urged continued attention to such disproportionately affected populations while cautioning the audience not to undertake such targeted efforts at the expense of universal HIV prevention messages, arguing that both are necessary.
Ms. Williams then welcomed Ms. Dázon Dixon Diallo, founder of Atlanta’s SisterLove , who shared thoughts on how the treatment cascade can help us end HIV/AIDS. She urged participants to “study the cascade, use it, spend time figuring out what it means for your organization and your community.” She suggested that such an understanding could help an organization determine where each of its programs and activities fits – or does not – in helping to improve the cascade for their specific population(s) of interest.
Finally, Mr. Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jr. joined Ms. Williams for a candid conversation about his experience living with HIV for the past 21 years. He observed that he enjoys good health today because early detection of his HIV infection likely saved his life. He also pointed to the important role that starting HIV treatment and staying adherent has played in his continued good health. On that point, he clarified for Ms. Williams that “no, I’m not on magical drugs; the same drugs available to everyone else are the ones available to me.” The third factor Mr. Johnson attributed his health to was the support and understanding of his wife, parents, teammates, and friends. Mr. Johnson then highlighted some of the work his Magic Johnson Foundation supports to educate young people and engage churches and schools in HIV education. He also praised and thanked the conference participants from across the nation for the work they are each doing to respond to HIV/AIDS in America and urged them sustain and grow their passion for their work while also being willing to change and re-tool their approaches and even their organizations as HIV in America continues to evolve. He brought the audience to their feet with a call for each of them to be “all in to end HIV” by playing their roles at the highest level they can and working together collaboratively to capitalize on new opportunities.
Tune in tomorrow for highlights from the second day of the conference.