Conference on AIDS – Highlights of Day 1

The 15th annual U.S. Conference on AIDS got underway yesterday in Chicago. Over the next four days we’ll be sharing brief daily highlights from the conference focusing particularly on issues related to the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS). Our first post is longer than usual, but with two plenary sessions and numerous day-long sessions, much transpired on this first day of the conference to share with our readers.

 

 

More than 2,500 participants are gathered for the conference representing all fronts of the HIV/AIDS epidemic—from case managers and physicians, to public health workers and advocates, people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWH/As) to policymakers. They’re here at this conference organized by the National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC) to build national support networks, exchange the latest information, and learn cutting edge tools to address the challenges of HIV/AIDS. This year’s conference theme, “Make Change Real: Unite. Speak. Act.”, highlights the opportunities before us because of the NHAS, recent scientific advances, and changes in the health care system.

 

Ending the AIDS Epidemic

The conference opened with a plenary session featuring Mr. Jeffrey Crowley, Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius as well as a video highlighting diverse members of the HIV/AIDS community articulating the National HIV/AIDS Strategy’s vision statement.

 

Both Secretary Sebelius and Mr. Crowley shared perspectives on implementation of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. Mr. Crowley thanked the audience for all of its hard work to help develop and now implement the NHAS. He observed that he has been thrilled with the energy, enthusiasm, and strategic thinking that the HIV/AIDS community has brought forward, but noted that we must keep pushing ourselves if we are to succeed. He gave the audience three assignments:

 

Ensure that the HIV/AIDS community stays united and focused – Mr.

Crowley observed that he believes it is possible to define a common agenda for the HIV/AIDS community that works to save the lives of gay and bisexual men, women, and all those affected by HIV/AIDS.

 

Ensure that community-based HIV/AIDS organizations stay strong and relevant – Mr. Crowley acknowledged that changes being brought about by both the economy and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act are changing the landscape for the many community-based organizations working on HIV prevention, care and treatment. To stay strong, he urged these organizations to ask some essential questions: Can we survive? What are we good at? What is our role in the reformed HIV care system? How do we and the larger HIV care system fit in the broader health care system as it reforms? Though this may be difficult for some organizations, he argued that it is absolutely necessary to achieve better outcomes in the future for people living with HIV/AIDS.

 

Keep adapting what you are doing in light of new research – Noting the importance of grounding our work in science, Mr. Crowley asked the participants to help translate new research into practice in their everyday work in communities across the nation. He urged the audience not to passively consume new research findings, such as the recent HPTN 052 study showing that early initiation of treatment can decrease the risk of HIV transmission among discordant heterosexual couples by 96%. Instead, he called on the entire HIV/AIDS community to incorporate these and other research advances, as appropriate, into their programming in order to achieve the goals of the Strategy.

 

In her remarks, Secretary Sebelius observed that over the past three years what the President and Mr. Crowley have done – with help from folks from across the Administration and the community – is take our national HIV/AIDS efforts off cruise control, create a new roadmap, and push down on the accelerator resulting in greater and more effective momentum behind our domestic HIV/AIDS efforts today than we’ve had for nearly a decade. She noted that over the past 16 months the National HIV/AIDS Strategy had stimulated action at the Federal as well as state and local levels. At the Federal level, the Secretary noted that one of the areas where of significant progress has been targeting Federal investments so they will make the biggest impact by supporting interventions that are proven to have a high payoff like HIV testing, prevention with positives, and condom distribution. She also observed that this means putting more resources into the communities with the highest risk, noting “this Administration believes that if we want to do more than fight HIV/AIDS to a stalemate – if we want to see new infections actually going down instead of holding steady – then we need to make sure that resources are provided to the areas with the greatest need.” Secretary Sebelius also observed that the Affordable Care Act represents an important advance for achieving the goals of the Strategy by improving access to quality insurance coverage and health care, expanding Medicaid eligibility, and increasing opportunities for health and well-being. Finally, the Secretary called on the audience, indeed the entire HIV/AIDS community, to seize the opportunity before us to usher in an AIDS-free generation—as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton challenged us to do earlier this week.

 

Also during the plenary session, a group of Native American, Alaska Native, Asian American and Pacific Islander demonstrators raised awareness about the importance of addressing HIV/AIDS in these communities. In response, Mr. Crowley affirmed that, indeed, all lives do matter.

 

Focus on HIV Among Gay and Bisexual Men

The target population of this year’s conference is gay and bisexual men, who still represent the greatest share of new HIV infections and people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States. In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), released new estimates of HIV infections in the United States. While HIV continues to have a disproportionate impact on all minority communities, the three populations with the highest number of new HIV infections in 2009 were White, African American, and Latino gay and bisexual men. What’s more, for several years now, gay and bisexual men have been the only population group experiencing rising HIV infection rates. Given these statistics, it is critical that the HIV/AIDS community work to address the needs of gay and bisexual men of all races. As the NHAS declares, “The United States cannot reduce the number of HIV infections nationally without better addressing HIV among gay and bisexual men.”

In response to this imperative, Thursday’s second plenary session focused specifically on this population. Hosted by CNN anchor Don Lemon, the session featured a keynote address by Mr. David Furnish, Chairman of the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF). Mr. Furnish spoke about the intersection of homophobia and HIV, observing that many of the risky behaviors and resulting new HIV infections among young gay and bisexual men are fueled by widespread homophobia. He urged all participants to consider what more they could do to confront homophobia as well as HIV stigma and discrimination against people with HIV. Demonstrating the active engagement of both the philanthropic and business sectors in activities contributing to national efforts to achieve the National HIV/AIDS Strategy’s goals, Mr. Furnish also highlighted partnerships between EJAF, Greater than AIDS and Walgreens and Ebony, a publication of Johnson Publishing, that are raising HIV/AIDS awareness, promoting prevention and testing, and supporting care.

 

This session also included a panel discussion with Arizona State Senator and PACHA member Jack Jackson; former Project Runway contestant Mondo Guerra; and Beibei Ye, an LGBT and HIV activist from China. Each shared perspectives from their experience as gay men. A common theme that each of them touched on was the impact of homophobia, HIV stigma, and discrimination against people living with HIV. Several presenters also praised the history of HIV/AIDS advocacy efforts by the gay community and urged a renewed passion and commitment to this important work.

 

The first day of the conference also featured numerous in-depth institutes on important topics related to the NHAS. Our team was able to attend only some of the sessions, but shares these highlights:

 

Achieving the HIV Testing Goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy
The AIDS Institute hosted a meeting to highlight progress in achieving the HIV testing goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. The session highlighted actions being taken by several Federal agencies, including CDC, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), as well as state governments, and HIV testing technology companies.

 

Addressing HIV in Communities of Color

There were several institutes that illustrated the progress and barriers of achieving the third goal of to the NHAS, reducing HIV-related health disparities. A packed institute addressing HIV/AIDS in the Latino community discussed many issues including strategies to reduce the number of Latinos in the U.S. who are “late testers” and who, as a result, develop AIDS less than one year after receiving an HIV diagnosis. AIDS.gov’s Miguel Gomez also spoke with this audience about AIDS2012—the International AIDS Conference that will be held in Washington, DC, July 22-27, 2012. During this discussion, the National Latino AIDS Action Network discussed a capacity building initiative, in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to ensure representation of Latino-focused research and Latino researchers at the conference.

 

Another institute addressed HIV/AIDS in the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. The session focused on strategic discussions about how to raise visibility and awareness of the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic among Asians & Pacific Islanders in the U.S. There were also discussions about how Asian and Pacific Islander-serving agencies can best prepare for the shifting paradigms in the HIV/AIDS world that the Secretary and Mr. Crowley outlined during the morning plenary session as well as others detailed in CDC’s new “High-Impact HIV Prevention” approach released in August 2011. This included discussion of concerns about, and strategies to address, the decreasing number of Asian and Pacific Islander-focused HIV/AIDS services organizations.

Tune in tomorrow for highlights from the second day of the conference.

AIDS.gov team members Michele Clark, Aisha Moore, and Naima Cozier contributed to this post.

 

Story by Christopher Bates, M.P.A., Executive Director, Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, and Senior Advisor to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health, Infectious Diseases, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services