BRISKIN: An AIDS-free State of the Union

Yale students are a famously politically engaged community, even going so far as hosting viewing parties for President Obama’s State of the Union address. Yet on one key topic, Yale students and President Obama alike have disappointingly fallen silent.

In November 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed the ambitious and admirable goal of an “AIDS-Free Generation.” Last year in his State of the Union address, President Obama reiterated this promise. But in his most recent address on Tuesday night, President Obama failed to even mention HIV/AIDS.

How has his commitment faded away, buried in a stack of papers and left to collect dust, after so much fervor just a year ago?

Some may ask why we should be so staunchly concerned about eliminating a disease that seems relevant only in Zambia or Malawi, countries that many of us would have trouble even pointing to on a map. But AIDS is a not just a pressing issue in developing countries — it is also sadly a growing issue on college campuses like our own. A few groups are bearing the burden of the sharpest spikes in new HIV infections. Of the estimated 12,200 new HIV infections that occurred in 2010 in Americans aged 13 to 24, 72 percent were in young men who have sex with men (MSM) and 57 percent occurred in black Americans, according to the CDC. Also concerning is the fact that many young people who are infected are not even aware of their infection status, and as a result, may unknowingly pass the infection to others. Among those MSM aged 18 to 24 years, only 49 percent knew of their infection status.

Compounding the problem, homophobia, stigma and discrimination may place gay men and other minority groups at risk for multiple physical and mental health problems, affecting whether they seek and are able to obtain high-quality health services. Beyond New Haven and U.S. borders, gays and other minority populations face even steeper discrimination, exacerbating already difficult barriers to treatment.

The good news in the fight against HIV/AIDS is that today we have numerous prevention and treatment technologies available. Regimens such as pre-exposure prophylaxis, postexposure prophylaxis and antiretroviral drugs are powerful ways of preventing and treating HIV infection. Thankfully, these drugs are available to many Americans.

However, for those HIV-positive people and their partners living in developing countries worldwide, life-saving antiretroviral drugs are often out of reach. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a bipartisan program, has successfully put over 6 million people on antiretroviral therapy, and every year prevents over 200,000 infants from contracting HIV from their mothers during birth. Even in these tough budgetary times, Congress and President Obama must recognize that global health is a wise investment with great returns in terms of economic growth, international diplomacy and security, and most importantly in human health and happiness. Likewise, we as members of the Yale community must see that the fight against HIV and AIDS is a worthwhile investment of our limited time, energy and passion.

Creating an AIDS-Free Generation concerns us all, and thus requires effort from all of us. Starting with simply being aware of the most practical and effective ways to prevent the spread of HIV is a fantastic first move, showing that we care about building a generation that never suffers from AIDS. As a next step, we can hold our politicians accountable, reaching out to members of Congress in Connecticut and in our home states, asking that domestic and international AIDS programs receive the funding necessary to treat and care for all those affected. Our dialogue and advocacy starting here within our residential colleges can have effects spreading out into New Haven, down to Washington, D.C. and even across the ocean to South Africa and Tanzania.

Forty members of Congress have already signed a letter asking for the administration to put 12 million people on antiretroviral treatment by 2016. We must join them in urging Secretary Kerry and President Obama to meet this goal and fulfill their promise of an AIDS-Free Generation.

Emily Briskin is a junior in Pierson College and the former president of the Yale Global Health and AIDS Coalition. Contact her at emily.briskin@yale.edu.

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