Barack Obama's victory was a defining moment in our nation's history, one in which we all can rejoice, particularly African Americans. But the election was just the beginning. Now, it's time to follow through on the promise to bring change to America. December 1, World AIDS Day, is an excellent place to start on fulfilling one important pledge – to make America a global leader in the fight against AIDS, which has become a crisis in Black America.
I'm optimistic that the Obama Administration will address the AIDS challenge, as the Obamas have already shown a real commitment to this issue. In 2006, Michelle and Barack Obama publicly took HIV tests during their visit to Kenya, in a bid to break the stigma that still surrounds this disease. Michelle Obama has also spoken out about the need for funding for HIV testing here at home.
Now, the Obamas have the opportunity to become the advocates-in-chief for an all-out response to the black AIDS epidemic.
The need for comprehensive action is urgent. Just a few months ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that the problem of HIV is much worse in the United States than previously thought, and African-Americans bear the brunt.
Two-thirds of American women living with HIV nationwide are black. The rate of new HIV infections is 20 times higher among black women than white women, and AIDS is the leading cause of death for black women ages 25 to 34.
These grim statistics led me to make HIV/AIDS the focus of my current career. Yet these statistics tell just part of the story. It may be a clichÅ½, but it's true – women hold the African-American community together. When we're hurting, the pain is felt by all – black women themselves, their families and extended families.
To end the suffering, there are three essential actions that I believe must be taken.
First, we need a plan. Believe it or not, the United States does not have a national plan to fight AIDS domestically. That's despite the requirement that other nations have national AIDS plans in order to receive U.S. funding through the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. What's more, the number of American blacks living with HIV exceeds the number of people with HIV in many PEPFAR-funded countries in Africa.
The National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS developed a National HIV/AIDS Elimination Initiative through a historic national conclave with black clergy. Our proposed initiative would declare the HIV/AIDS crisis in the African-American community a public health emergency, and require the federal government to develop and implement a plan for HIV treatment, care, prevention and other services. Critically, it would provide a roadmap for the policy reforms and budget increases needed to win the fight against AIDS.
Second, we must do a much better job of reaching African Americans with HIV testing and treatment. Close to a quarter of a million Americans are HIV-positive but unaware of their status. As a result, they are not receiving life-saving treatments, such as new once-daily medicines – and may unknowingly be transmitting HIV infection to others.
On this front, one key area where we can do more is in the nation's correctional system. Today, many prisons are failing the communities they serve by not providing HIV testing, prevention services and appropriate medical care to their inmates. As a result, too many men leave prison with HIV infection without knowing it – and black women are unwittingly placed at risk. It's possible that Congress will soon pass legislation encouraging routine HIV testing for all inmates upon prison entry and exit, and linking those who test positive to HIV treatment and care. The new Administration must also make this a top priority.
And third, we need a comprehensive AIDS education program in America's schools. Health education for teens should provide comprehensive information on HIV/AIDS and how to prevent it. We need to focus especially on young, black women, empowering them with the knowledge they need to take control of their relationships, their health and their destinies.
With last month's election, what so recently seemed impossible has become a reality. As someone who grew up in the Deep South, marched as a teenager with Dr. Martin Luther King, and spent seven days in jail because I participated in civil rights protests, I know first-hand how remarkable that is. Most of all, I know that anything is possible when we have purpose in mind and passion in heart.
That's why I'm feeling optimistic on this World AIDS Day. In an era of new possibilities, our nation has the opportunity to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic once and for all. I join the Obamas in saying: "Yes we can!"
C. Virginia Fields is the President and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS. For more information, visit www.nblca.org