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Forward Toward an AIDS-Free Generation

Kathleen Sebelius

AIDS 2012 Opening Session, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius © IAS/Ryan Rayburn

I believe–and President Obama believes–that an AIDS-free generation is within our reach.

On December 2, I joined President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry at the White House to mark the 25th anniversary of World AIDS Day.

We were joined by a remarkable group of people–including scientists, activists, elected officials, and philanthropists from across the United States and around the world.

We were brought together by our common dedication to ending the AIDS epidemic.

The science gives us great reason to be hopeful: Treatments are steadily improving and, because of this, an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. In fact, with the right medication and the right treatment, HIV is a manageable medical condition.

Thanks to research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), we now know that people who are getting effective treatment for their HIV infection are significantly less likely to pass the virus to someone else since medications can reduce their viral load–the amount of virus in their body–to undetectable levels.

There are currently more than 30 safe and effective antiretroviral drugs and drug combinations on the market that work to achieve this. And we’re making great progress developing new regimens and medications that last longer, are easier to use, and have fewer life-disrupting side effects.

The Obama Administration has worked diligently to ensure that everyone in the U.S. who needs those medications gets them. Two years ago, there were 9,000 people on the waiting list for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which helps HIV-infected patients across the country gain access to critical, life-saving medications. On December 2, the President announced that that list had been reduced to zero.

In addition, at the World AIDS Day event, the President announced that the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) recently exceeded a goal he set on World AIDS Day 2011 of helping 6 million people get HIV treatment by the end of 2013. PEPFAR has helped 6.7 million people receive lifesaving treatment.

But drug treatment alone will not stop the epidemic, which currently affects 1.1 million Americans and more than 35 million people worldwide.

So, right now, NIH grantees and scientists are working to find a way to treat HIV with infection-fighting antibodies. And we’ve made major headway just this year in our understanding of how antibodies evolve in the body alongside the HIV virus after a person is infected.

This work represents a big step forward toward developing an effective vaccine and–ultimately–toward finding a cure.

I am proud of the historic progress our team at NIH has made. So I was very pleased to join President Obama as he announced that NIH would redirect $100 million to advance research into an HIV cure.

The budgetary constraints our teams across the Department have been working under have posed considerable challenges. We need to continue to be smart about how we target our investments to make sure we’re devoting every possible resource to bringing an end to this epidemic.

And we’ll need to continue the fight to make sure every American has access to quality, affordable health insurance–especially those who are living with HIV.

Lately, there have been people in Washington who’ve been saying they want to go back to the way things were before the Affordable Care Act was passed. But on World AIDS Day, as we remembered all of the loved ones we’ve lost–all of the potential that has been squandered by too many lives cut short–I was reminded of everything we don’t want to go back to.

We don’t want to return to the days when simple but critical preventive services like HIV screenings were prohibitively expensive for many Americans.

We don’t want to return to the days when children could be denied the chance to grow older and stay healthy because they were born with HIV.

We don’t want to go back to the days when an insurance company could pull the rug out from under people by rescinding their coverage because they got sick. By working to implement the Affordable Care Act, we’re moving forward and leaving those dark moments in our nation’s history behind us.

January 1, 2014 will be a new day for millions of Americans who have waited far too long for health insurance they can afford–and for the sense of hope and security that comes with it.

It will be a new day for the nearly 4.6 million people who will finally be eligible for coverage in states that are expanding Medicaid. If all 50 were to expand, we could cover another 5.4 million Americans, including many at risk for or living with HIV.

As President Obama said, “We can’t change the past, or undo its wrenching pain. But what we can do–and what we have to do–is to chart a different future, guided by our love for those we couldn’t save.”

I am proud to stand with the President–and with partners here at home and around the world–as we remain as dedicated to this fight as ever if we are to realize the promise of an AIDS-free generation.

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