Last month, the Trump Administration made national headlines when it decided to terminate every member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA). Since its creation in 1995, PACHA’s purpose has been to provide advice, information and recommendations to the Secretary of Health and Human Services regarding HIV programs, policies and research to promote effective treatment, prevention and, ultimately, a cure for HIV. Additional responsibilities for PACHA members also include monitoring and providing recommendations to effectively implement the National HIV/AIDS Strategy to help address the HIV epidemic domestically.
The landscape of the HIV epidemic has been dramatically shifting since the first diagnosis in the 1980s. At the start of the epidemic, there was limited information on the science and facts surrounding HIV transmission, which fueled people’s fears and contributed to rise of HIV in the United States and across the world. Fast forward a few years later, and long gone are the days when an HIV diagnosis equated a death sentence! Thanks to the remarkable medical and scientific advancements over the past years, we now know that people living with HIV can lead long and healthy lives.
With the state of HIV making such headway, why would the Trump Administration want to risk all of the progress that has been made? Does that make any sense to you? If the answer is no: you are correct. Now is absolutely not the time to be taking a step backwards. Although we have not found the cure to HIV, we are closer than we have ever been to significantly reducing HIV transmissions and in turn, eventually eradicating HIV altogether.
Last year, the CDC joined the list of hundreds of experts and HIV organizations in releasing a memo in support of the science behind “Undetectable = Untransmittable” (“U=U”) stating that people who are living with HIV and are virally suppressed, meaning their HIV treatment has reduced their viral load to an undetectable level, are not able to transmit HIV to another person. The CDC’s release of this statement changed the game because it used science to dismantle the false public narrative that people living with HIV are “infectious” or “contagious,” which often leads to heightened stigma and limited access to HIV testing, treatment and services . Now, people living with HIV will be encouraged to get in treatment and become virally suppressed, knowing that they will be able to keep themselves, their partners and the general public healthy, which will be an instrumental tool in moving us closer to eradicating HIV and AIDS.
But the Trump Administration’s actions has done little to move us towards that goal. In fact, by removing the very people needed to effectively implement the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, it has set the country up to potentially experience a rise in HIV transmissions, which can lead to catastrophic results. The small community of Austin in Scott County, Indiana, made national headlines in 2015 when it suffered from the largest HIV outbreak in its state’s history. According to the CDC, Austin (population: 4,200) had a higher incidence of HIV than “any country in sub-Saharan Africa” and “have had more people infected with HIV through injection drug use than in all of New York City last year.” Contributing factors to the Austin outbreak mirror conditions that we currently experience in some parts of our country: poverty, addiction, doctor shortages, and gaps in health care coverage, especially in rural communities where people are most vulnerable to HIV. These factors, in addition to the removal of the PACHA members, can lead to a substantial reduction in HIV-related funding, services and awareness, which is the opposite of what we need to end HIV. There has been so much progress made in the world of HIV & AIDS and we have seen the benefits of that progress both here and abroad. We have to do more to utilize the resources that we do have to help eradicate HIV, once and for all.
So to the Trump Administration: Can you not?