New HIV Strain Would Change Little About the Epidemic: It’s Still a Crisis We’re Ignoring

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STATMENT: Potential ‘Supervirus’ is Nothing New

New HIV Strain Would Change Little About the Epidemic: It’s Still a Crisis We’re Ignoring

When the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene announced its discovery what appears to be a multi-drug resistant, rapid-progressing strain of HIV, it was scary news. To uncover a virus resistant to three out of the four classes of medications currently available, which advances from HIV to AIDS within three to six months, is utterly horrifying. It is, however, not terribly surprising.

The real story is that the new strain is simply a sobering confirmation of the point many of us have been making for 10 years: These “miracle” drugs are no such thing. We have no idea how long they can keep working, or why they work for some patients and not for others. They are highly toxic. And, for African Americans in long-term treatment, they complicate medical care for other common illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease and Hepatitis C.

The discovery of a potentially multi-drug resistant strain forces America to acknowledge that we do not have this epidemic under as much control as we would like to believe.

Much of the media coverage has focused on the sexual profile of the man who tested positive for the new strain: a 40-something gay man, binging on crystal methamphetime while having multiple anonymous sex partners. But we must also stress Washington, D.C.’s abandonment of proven prevention efforts. The White House’s fiscal year 2006 budget proposal cuts funding for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention by $4 million. It cuts the CDC’s overall budget by almost 10 percent. Meanwhile, funding for scientifically-discredited abstinence-only sex education programs has doubled since 2001. These proposals are unacceptable in an era when we are seeing 40,000 new infections a year.

It must also be said that, while we need to understand more about the correlation between crystal meth use and unprotected anal sex, it is long past time that we address the role of a drug that has been inextricably linked with HIV transmission from the epidemic’s start: heroin. Nearly 40 percent of all AIDS cases in the Black community to date are associated with injection drug use. For more than two decades we have watched thousands of Black drug users get infected every year while we dither in a political debate over needle exchange programs. It is time for that debate to end. Public health officials and AIDS activists alike must demand that national and local policymakers put politics aside and save lives.

The new HIV strain New York City officials may have discovered is scary. But it changes little about this epidemic. Still, too few people are in treatment. The treatments that are available are still toxic, their longevity still unknown. Our commitment to prevention remains crucial, and our prevention efforts still must match the epidemic’s realities, even when those realities stretch beyond our political comfort zones.

The epidemic rages on in too many neighborhoods; last week’s announcement in New York City is but one more reminder of that fact.

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