July 27, 2012
One in a series about leaders making news at the 2012 International AIDS Conference
The Obama Administration released the nation's first National HIV/AIDS Strategy two years ago this month. At that time, the goal of "zero new infections" seemed unlikely -- especially among some advocates who were in Vienna, Austria for the opening of the 18th International AIDS Conference.
Fast forward two years. More than 25,000 researchers, activists, service providers and policy makers are attending the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C., and as a result of several groundbreaking advances many attending are optimistic about the likelihood of an AIDS-free generation.
It's possible to "dramatically decrease the number of new infections," said Nancy Mahon, senior vice president, MAC Cosmetics and global executive director of the MAC AIDS Fund. Mahon also chairs the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, or PACHA.
Much of the new focus is around "treatment as prevention" -- aggressive antiretroviral treatment for the newly diagnosed HIV-positive.
"This was a game-changer," said Mahon. "Not only does it treat the individual but dramatically decreases the likelihood that they will transmit the virus."
"But a critical issue for the U.S. is 'retention' -- people staying in care and staying on medication," she added. "Almost one out of every two people in the U.S. who start taking medication falls out of care. We must change this."
Some communities are also doing more with the prevention tools they already have.
In Washington, where HIV's 3.2 prevalence rate remains the highest in the country -- "higher than West Africa and on par with Uganda and some parts of Kenya," reported the Washington Post -- female condoms have been gaining traction.
Free female condoms have been distributed for two years to beauty salons, clinics, stores and other locations through a District program funded by the MAC AIDS Fund. A recent study in AIDS and Behavior reported that 23 new HIV infections were prevented the first year -- saving $8 million, reports the Washington Post. "The lifetime HIV medical-care cost is $367,134, a figure widely used by AIDS researchers. Averting 23 infections translates to more than $8 million in savings, even after deducting the $414,186 for the overall cost of the female condom program," the paper reported.
"Brazil and many African nations are well ahead of America in embracing female condoms. The original designs were cumbersome but there are better versions now," noted Mahon. "This is a great program and it's been very effective. But we need more tools in the prevention toolbox, especially for low-income women. Hopefully that will be one of the highlights of the conference."
Blacks represent only 13 percent of the nation's population but account for 44 percent of all new HIV infections. Black Americans are also much more likely to be "late testers" who learn of their HIV positive serostatus as it rapidly approaches an AIDS diagnosis. This means they have "a smaller window of opportunity to benefit" from life-saving medications, added Mahon.
These are major challenges for Black gay and bisexual men, as well as Black women, the two demographics that have been hardest hit in the domestic epidemic.
Mahon echoes the sentiments of many grassroots service and treatment providers: "We need to drill down by group and determine how we can keep them in care and adherence to their regimen."
Another focus at AIDS 2012: How to fund HIV prevention, treatment and research during a global recession. "There are many more challenges to government and private sector donations. Look at what happened to the Global Fund," said Mahon.
The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria made a surprise announcement last November that it would cancel $1.5 billion in planned disbursements. The fund is the world's largest multilateral donor to the HIV/AIDS response in the developing world. Fund executives acknowledged that "U.S. and European budget problems" have impacted disbursement.
"It's ironic that at the time with the greatest promise and scientific advancement, we are seeing a decrease in dollars," noted Mahon. "There was a 30 percent decrease in private HIV funding last year. President Obama has stepped up HIV funding nationally. But we need a bigger response from private funders and from localities."
MAC AIDS Fund has" increased its funding commitments" this year, says its director. One hundred percent of the proceeds of MAC's "VIVA Glam" line's $14 lipsticks are donated to help fight HIV/AIDS. The campaign has raised $224 million for HIV/AIDS-related causes since launching in 1994.
Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News and NBC, and his reporting has appeared in EBONY, The Advocate, The Body and many others. Rod blogs on politics, pop culture and Black gay news at rod20.com.