Monday, December 01, 2008

Take the Lead - Help Stop HIV and AIDS

For 20 years, people around the globe have observed Dec. 1 as World AIDS Day. It's a time to remember those we have lost, to thank the people who give of their time to care for those infected and affected by the disease, and to rededicate ourselves to finding a cure. AIDS has not gone away -- not by a long shot. Therapies have improved, and many HIV-positive people are living longer and healthier lives, but many challenges lie ahead.

According to the World AIDS campaign web site, 8,000 people die from HIV disease every day, and there are millions of new infections each year -- despite increased commitments from government leaders and health-care institutions. This means we need even more leadership, more ideas, deeper commitments, and increases in funding.

Many people lacking insurance and health care simply do without necessary treatment -- and if they don't know that they are infected with HIV, they unknowingly put themselves and others at risk. With the global economic meltdown, there are likely to be more of them, especially among groups of people who already have little access to HIV education. Too many people don't get tested and some do not discover their HIV status until after they have progressed to full-blown AIDS.

As daunting as these challenges will be, we all have some reason to cheer on this Dec. 1. In the past year alone, reasearch has told us that people undergoing HIV therapies have similar survival rates as those of uninfected people. Newly discovered and approved treatment options make medication regimens safer and simpler to follow. Numerous states are making big headway in permitting routine HIV testing within everyday health care settings. This is all great news, and with renewed focus by government, research institutions, and health care administrators, hopefully we will see even more news to celebrate by this time next year.

In the meantime, health educators need new ideas for delivering potentially lifesaving information on HIV and AIDS to populations still not getting the word: young people, non-English speakers, disadvantaged communities in the US and overseas. There must be a renewed commitment to collaboration between health-care providers, researchers, and government officials so that they can bring necessary changes in diagnosis,a decrease in the number of new infections, and increased access to care and treatment -- especially during an economic crisis that will leave more people uninsured and under-insured.

HIV/AIDS organizations throughout the US hope the new Obama administration will bring needed change in prevention, access to care, civil rights, and research within its first 100 days. They call for a bigger federal investment in domestic HIV/AIDS programs, including research and prevention efforts, and in care and services for those with HIV/AIDS through the Ryan White CARE Act. They also urge the president-elect to get to work promptly on a national HIV/AIDS strategy that deals realistically with the HIV epidemic, which, despite the efforts of thousands over the past two decades, continues to grow.

HIV is everyone's problem -- that is most clear on this, the 20th World AIDS Day. We all must take some sort of leadership role to stop infections, to care for the sick, and to halt the dying. Since 1981, I have lost more than 100 loved ones to the disease, so ending this scourge is a very personal matter to me. Every person infected by HIV creates a group of people also affected by the disease. That adds up to a whole lot of misery -- and it must be stopped. With stronger leadership, fresh ideas, and renewed commitment, we can end the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I know we can. But we need you to do your part: Write to lawmakers and political leaders and remind them of the urgency. Volunteer at your local AIDS service provider -- you can serve as a caregiving buddy or deliver meals to homebound patients or visit people in hospitals or in a host of roles. Talk about the importance of testing, abstinence, and safer sex in your schools and within your community, your church, your home. If you can't give time, donate. Just do something.

On this World AIDS Day, I ask you to take time to inform yourself and to think: What will you do to make a difference before Dec. 1, 2009? Once you have found your answer, get busy. There are lives to save.