Responding to the President's call for the engagement of all sectors of society in working toward the goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS) representatives of the Centers for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (CFBNP) at the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services (HHS), Housing and Urban Development, Labor, and Veterans Affairs and the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (CFBNP) gathered on October 28 at a meeting hosted by Ms. Alexia Kelley, Director of the HHS CFBNP, and myself. We convened these important partners to discuss ways that we can work together to strengthen and maintain the engagement of faith communities in the efforts detailed in the strategy.
The President noted in his letter accompanying the release of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy in July, "The Federal government can't do this alone, nor should it. Success will require the commitment of governments at all levels, businesses, faith communities, philanthropy, the scientific and medical communities, educational institutions, people living with HIV, and others." Given the collective effort required to achieve the goals of the NHAS, the CFBNPs are important allies in sustaining and enhancing the commitment of the many faith communities across the United States already engaged in some dimension of HIV/AIDS prevention and/or care and treatment while also bringing still more faith communities and community-based organizations into this important work.
The Centers will work within their respective Departments and also with one another on two specific actions identified in the NHAS. First, to reduce HIV-related health disparities, the strategy calls upon both the public and private sectors to develop and support efforts to reduce stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and populations at high risk for HIV. Unfortunately, even three decades into this epidemic, stigma associated with HIV infection persists and fear of discrimination causes many Americans to avoid learning their HIV status, disclosing their status, or accessing medical care in a timely fashion. Thus, working to end the stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with HIV is a critical component of curtailing the epidemic. The Federal Implementation Plan accompanying the NHAS specifically calls upon the Centers for Faith-Based and Community Partnerships to develop a plan for engaging more faith leaders to promote nonjudgmental support for people living with HIV.
Second, as part of larger efforts to reduce the number of new infections by increasing the number of Americans who know their HIV status, the strategy supports routine screening for HIV in health care settings and also encourages the expansion of HIV testing to nontraditional sites like community-based organizations, social organizations and faith institutions. The CDC estimates that 21% of people living with HIV in the U.S. are unaware of their infection, placing them at greater risk of spreading the virus to others and preventing them from accessing treatment that could prolong their lives. Leaders of faith-based organizations can play an important role in educating their congregants about the importance of early diagnosis for HIV infection and making them aware of resources within their communities where they can be tested and, if found to be positive, receive life-saving treatment.
During the meeting the CFBNP representatives shared information about HIV-related activities underway within each of their departments and highlighted several examples of HIV testing and other AIDS-related activities by specific faith communities. They also discussed possible activities they could undertake collectively toward the action steps identified in the NHAS, with particular attention on those populations disproportionately impacted by HIV (men who have sex with men (MSM), African American men and women, Latino men and women, and substance users). Committing to continuing the dialogue among themselves, with leaders of their Department's HIV/AIDS activities, and their networks of faith leaders and neighborhood organizations, the meeting participants began planning to develop some common tools to be shared with faith communities and neighborhood organizations in the coming year.
Ron Valdiserri, M.D., M.P.H., is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health, Infectious Diseases, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.