For the past ten years, the number of new HIV infections nationwide each year has remained stubbornly stuck around 50,000. Gay men continue to bear the brunt of the disease, comprising nearly two thirds of those infections. Alarmingly, rates of new infections among young gay men are on the rise; young African American gay men saw infection rates climb by 48% from 2006 to 2009. These sobering data just released by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that our work, both here in San Francisco and in cities across the country, is far from over.
The statistics beg several critical questions: are the prevention methods that have been in place for the past decade working, and are budget cuts to HIV/AIDS programs hindering our efforts? These are questions not easily answered, but San Francisco AIDS Foundation is working hard to achieve solutions on both fronts.
“At the height of the epidemic in the 1980’s there were more than 130,000 new infections every year, and many of those people were dying,” said San Francisco AIDS Foundation CEO Neil Giuliano. “Through bold leadership, which originated in San Francisco, we have made tremendous progress in reducing new infections throughout the history of the disease. But the fact that we’ve reached a plateau for the past decade is unacceptable. Now, we need to be as bold those pioneers in the 1980s and early 1990s to move the needle further and reach new frontiers in prevention.”
When the CDC announced the new infection estimates, agency researchers said it’s now time for everyone across the country, both in government and community agencies, to “double-down on our prevention efforts.” That’s exactly what we’re doing at San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
Beginning in September, Magnet, our gay men's health center in the heart of the Castro neighborhood, will more than double the number of HIV tests it offers every year. Through a pioneering program, Magnet is adding what’s called an “express lane.” Gay and bisexual men who test regularly will have the option to opt out of the standard comprehensive counseling services that are offered as part of HIV testing, making it much faster to get tested and receive their results. This will allow us to increase testing from about 4,200 per year to nearly 10,000 annually.
Counseling will remain a critical component of services offered at Magnet. If someone wants the full counseling experience, that will be available. If a test comes back positive, those men will immediately be counseled by our expert staff so they are educated about the next steps to receive care as quickly as possible. New research shows that getting people into care and treatment as soon as infection is discovered leads to much better long-term health outcomes for that person and makes them far less likely to transmit the disease to other people.
“Magnet is committed to creating a community where all gay and bisexual men take care of their health and the well-being of their sexual partners,” said Magnet HIV Services Manager Mark Alstead. “By speeding up access to testing and doubling our capacity, we are helping to realize our vision of a community in which new HIV infections are rare.”
As we also learned from the new CDC statistics, rates of new infections are rapidly increasing among young gay black men in particular. Because of this, our long-standing Black Brothers Esteem (BBE) program is adding a new service called BBE Fresh, which will provide education, support, and linkage to testing and care for young African-American men in San Francisco. Additionally, the foundation’s new Black Health program is now providing health care to hundreds of African Americans living with HIV. Services include primary medical care provided at San Francisco General Hospital and UCSF Medical Center, and medical case management and peer advocacy services provided at the foundation.
But these remain difficult and uncertain economic times, complicating access to basic services. That’s why San Francisco AIDS Foundation has some of the best policy experts in the nation working to ensure programs for prevention and care remain fully funded. Earlier this year, we worked closely with San Francisco leaders to protect millions of dollars in Ryan White funding so that people get the care and medications they need. But that was just one funding hurdle to overcome, and our entire community faces more budgetary challenges in the near future. Meanwhile, along with our many community partners, we are fully engaged at all levels of government to make sure federal health care reform is implemented properly over the next several years so that it meets the needs of all people living with HIV/AIDS. Through all of our policy efforts, we are linking our clients to policy makers so they understand the real world impacts of their decisions on people’s health. With the help of our many donors and supporters, our policy efforts remain vibrant and, most importantly, effective.
“Thirty years into the HIV epidemic, we know that San Francisco and our community of activists and supporters will continue to be the leaders in devising programs to effectively stop the spread of HIV,” said Giuliano. “San Francisco AIDS Foundation will never lose sight of its pioneering legacy. We refuse to accept HIV transmission as inevitable, and we will never accept a static level of new infections year after year. Just as HIV adapts as a virus, we too are adapting in our care and prevention efforts. Because of that, I’m confident we can succeed in radically reducing new infections in the near future.”
The best way to fight HIV is to know your status. A simple test can determine if you are infected with the virus.
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