A Commitment to the Fight Against HIV/AIDS

Since the early 1980s when the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was discovered, immense strides have occurred in our understanding of how to prevent and manage the disease. Originally a death sentence, HIV is almost fully preventable, and with proper management, the chance of a person developing AIDS is significantly lower than in the past. However, we still have a lot of work to do in order to educate health care providers and the public about HIV -- and about how to prevent and manage this disease among communities that remain underserved and disproportionately affected.

Last month -- exactly three years after the National HIV/AIDS Strategy was established -- President Obama again demonstrated his commitment to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic by creating the HIV Care Continuum Initiative, which will identify new strategies for testing and treatment, in addition to providing more support to health care providers and advocates.

This initiative is an important step forward in the prevention of HIV transmission and the treatment of men, women, and children exposed to or infected with HIV, and it also needs to be coupled with dialogue about sexuality, gender roles, and ways to stay well.

Initially seen as a "gay disease" in the 1980s, the HIV epidemic has targeted those already most affected by discrimination and health inequities. While we have seen critical progress in the epidemic owing to real conversations within communities, leading to advocacy, research, improved medications, and improved disease management recommendations, the disease still disproportionately burdens gay men, especially African-American gay men, and heterosexual African-American women.

The latest CDC data shows that one in four people living with HIV are women, and women account for 20 percent of all new infections each year. Of that number, African-American women are disproportionately affected. In fact, African-American women account for 64 percent of new infections among women overall, even though African-Americans represent just 13 percent of the population.

HIV/AIDS has always had a strong connection with reproductive health and sexual behaviors, as we know that the likelihood of someone contracting HIV is increased if that person has certain STDs.

The first step to preventing diseases and maintaining reproductive health is through education and periodic testing for STDs, most of which start out with no symptoms. At Planned Parenthood, we pride ourselves on promoting healthy sexuality and in making testing available for each person who needs it -- and that means everyone who is sexually active and who is not in a mutually monogamous relationship. Each partner should be tested prior to beginning sexual intimacy. In 2011 alone, Planned Parenthood health centers provided 680,000 HIV tests nationwide, which is a 16 percent increase from the number of tests we provided in 2010. Each year through our Get Yourself Tested campaign, we educate women and young people on the importance of testing for gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV.

And thanks to the Affordable Care Act, millions more people will have access to STD testing and care, including HIV testing. Women will be able to access HIV and other STD counseling and screening at no cost.

At Planned Parenthood, we're eager to inform our patients about expanded access to services that will help save their fertility and health, and we're also committed to helping address the stigma that can prevent people from getting tested for HIV or other STDs.

President Obama's Executive Order establishing the HIV Care Continuum Initiative is an important move in the right direction as we work toward an AIDS-free generation. It will help us continue to prioritize STD and HIV education and testing within our communities, and broaden our reach to those who need to be part of a candid conversation about safer sex and care that maintains and promotes health and that protects future fertility.