Despite enormous strides in education, prevention and treatment, communities of color and transgender people are still being left behind in the fight against HIV.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released its HIV Surveillance Supplemental Report, which highlights important progress made in recent years: the rate of new HIV infections decreased by 7.9 percent between 2010 and 2015. This trend can be attributed to strong advocacy, access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and making health insurance more accessible through the Affordable Care Act.
Despite these advances, the report highlights several notable disparities among demographics where new HIV infections are still occurring, which include gay, bisexual and queer identified men that are between the ages of 25 through 34 and identify as Latino or Black. Most alarmingly, young Black men who identify as gay, bisexual and queer make up roughly 42 percent of new HIV infections in the United States. Tragically, the report does not track new HIV infections or prevalence among transgender and gender non-conforming communities.
Even though there is good news to celebrate, the fight against HIV is not won until gains are made in every community. As HIV advocates embark on the mission of zero new HIV infections in Illinois, as well as in other communities around the country, it’s important to remember: if an individual living with HIV has an undetectable viral load – not showing up on blood tests – they cannot pass the virus to another person. Easily accessible health care that’s community-driven and stigma free are critical components for people living with HIV to achieve undetectable viral loads, and ultimately decrease new infections.
Empowered health care also means increasing access to PrEP, as well as effective treatment and compassionate health care for those living with HIV and other chronic illnesses. At the beginning of this year, Howard Brown Health launched a same day start program, empowering patients to begin HIV treatment the same day they test positive for HIV. Since the program’s launch, many of our patients have reached HIV viral load suppression within the first month of treatment – a huge benefit to both patients and their partners.
Key findings in the Supplemental Report reinforce the importance of addressing socioeconomic barriers preventing health equity, such as access to stable housing, transportation, job security, food security and mental health. It is not a coincidence that communities most affected by poverty share the highest rates of new infections.
Comprehensive strategies that focus on treating the whole person by providing safety net programs are vital, because they remove barriers impairing patient well-being and help them access life essentials, such as housing, employment and food. Last year, Howard Brown Health’s programs gave patients 2,640 transportation vouchers to access medical appointments. Our weekly food trucks at our Englewood clinic provide patients access to healthy food, an essential element of most HIV regiments. These are some of the many examples in how a holistic approach engages people in care, puts individuals in charge of their own health care journey and boosts success along the continuum of HIV care.
While Chicago and communities around the country have the interventions necessary to eliminate new HIV infections, ability of health care providers to make progress depends on being able to focus on the communities that have been left behind. Gay, bisexual and queer men of color and transgender people need our collective support. Organizations like Howard Brown Health need readily available, quality data on all communities impacted by HIV, which is why tracking incidence and prevalence in transgender and gender non-conforming communities is critical. What is important is that providers stand with their patients, not just as practitioners, but as neighbors, coworkers, family members and friends who remain resolved to prioritize the health and well-being of marginalized individuals.
If nothing else, the release of the Surveillance Report reminds advocates around the country that while Americans are so close to achieving a generation free of HIV, in some communities the work is just beginning.
Chad Hendry, director of HIV/STI prevention, and Liz Thompson, associate director of HIV/STI prevention, are a part of Howard Brown Health, the Midwest’s largest LGBTQ nonprofit health care organization. Founded in 1974, Howard Brown Health serves more than 27,000 adults and youth each year in its diverse health and social service delivery system focused around four major programmatic divisions: clinical care, research, education and advocacy.