White House Unveils|HIV/AIDS Strategy

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The Obama administration unveiled a new HIV/AIDS strategy Tuesday aimed at lowering the rate of new infections and providing more care to the 1.1 million Americans living with the disease.

     “We’re focused on preventing new infections rather than just lengthening lives,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said at a White House meeting. “We refuse to accept a stalemate, to dig in and just hold the disease at bay.”
     The main objective of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, or NHAS, is to reduce the rate of new infections by 25 percent within five years. The other two major goals are to increase access to care for those living with the disease and to reduce HIV-related health disparities.
     At the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, there were 130,000 infections a year. That number dropped to 50,000 per year in the mid-1990s.
     “That reversal is a pretty great accomplishment,” Sebelius said, crediting the decrease to HIV testing programs and community education. But the rate of new infections has remained relatively steady. Today, there are still 56,000 new infections per year. “Our progress in preventing new infections has slowed,” Sebelius said. “We’re keeping pace when we should be gaining ground.”
     The NHAS vision states, “The United States will become a place where new HIV infections are rare and when they do occur, every person, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or socioeconomic circumstance will have unfettered access to high-quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination.”
     The plan caps a year of study across the country, including focus groups in San Francisco, New York and Philadelphia.
     Racial disparities with the disease are great, Sebelius said. While white heterosexual women are infected with the disease at a rate of 1 in 50,000, 1 out of every 35 black female injection drug users get HIV/AIDS. Sebelius said her staff believes that one in every five Americans who are HIV positive do not know it, many because they refuse to get tested for fear of being judged.
     “We must work to change people’s attitudes,” Sebelius said. Part of the program’s goal is to reduce the stigma surrounding the disease.
     Besides Sebelius, other lead officials for the plan include National AIDS Policy Director Jeffrey Crowley, the administration’s top deputy on infectious diseases, White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes and HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Howard Koh, the plan’s key agency coordinator.
     The strategy team is focusing on spreading education, improving substance abuse treatment, and furthering vaccine research.
     “We’re taking an all-of-the-above approach,” Sebelius said.
     Obama enlisted the Heath and Human Services Department, Justice Department, Labor Department, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration to lead the effort.
     All federal agencies must submit a plan for how they will implement the strategy in the next 150 days.
     Part of the plan has the EEOC focus on job opportunities for people infected with HIV/AIDS and addressing employment-related discrimination.
     The plan also details reaching out to faith-based and community organizations and LGBT groups to increase education.
     “Our vision is to have a day soon where HIV infections are rare and everyone will receive care,” Koh said.
     The first $30 million in new funding will go towards AIDS organizations in vulnerable populations.
     Cases of HIV/AIDS are currently concentrated in the northeastern and southern U.S. as well as Puerto Rico.
     “Someone is infected with HIV every nine and a half minutes,” Barnes said.
     Critics of the plan say it doesn’t go far enough. A representative from Housing Works, the largest community-based AIDS organization in the United States, asked how the officials could claim that the plan went far enough when it only aimed to reduce new infections to effectively 1 in every 12 minutes from 1 in every 9 minutes.
     “We’re trying to be honest about what we think is achievable,” Crowley said, adding that reducing new infections by 25 percent within 5 years was an “achievable but aggressive goal.”
     “This is not a federal strategy, this is a national strategy,” Crowley said. “We need the whole country to reengage in addressing HIV/AIDS. In the past, we focused too much on individual interventions and not on interventions at the community level,” Crowley said.
     “Amen,” an audience member called out.
     The new plan is slated to be implemented by 2015.

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