The New York Stock Exchange. St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The National Institutes of Health. All three locations are icons in America not just because of their status in the broader culture but because of their seminal roles in bringing the urgency of our community in addressing the HIV crisis.
That urgency was born out of the fierce knowledge that action had to happen immediately because many who were leading the street protests may not see a future. Death was a constant companion, decimating an entire generation of men who have sex with men.
We have come a long way since then. Unlike in the ’80s, HIV is no longer a likely terminal diagnosis. It’s a chronic manageable disease, and HIV prevention no longer requires barriers to intimacy. Both of those are the result of astonishing scientific and medical advances since 1981.
Despite this incredible potential, we have to stop and look at who is continuing to be impacted by this virus. It is disproportionately affecting our black and brown brothers and sisters who are carrying the burden of new infections. It is also black and brown people who are less likely to garner culturally appropriate health care access, which includes treatment and prevention drugs.
In 2017, Gretchen Whitmer was a candidate for governor of Michigan in a primary with Democrat Abdul El-Sayed. She won the governor’s office, besting notorious homophobe and former Attorney General Bill Schuette. During that campaign, she was clear that the state had an obligation to do more to address the HIV crisis. She said the state should free up funding for syringe-access programs to prevent an outbreak in persons who used drugs. She delivered on this call two weeks ago when she put syringe access programming front and center in her administration’s response to the opioid crisis. Kudos to her. That move alone will save hundreds of Michiganders from infections related to using dirty needles.
Whitmer also committed herself to finding funding to help those who are uninsured or underinsured access to Truvada, a drug approved by the federal government for HIV prevention. That prevention measure, known as pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP, has been found to be as much as 99 percent effective in preventing someone from contracting HIV. PrEP is expensive, unfortunately. Those with high deductible plans or no health insurance are completely cut from the market even with pharmaceutical assistance programs. And even those with commercial insurance may find the copayments beyond their means.
Access to PrEP is no less a life-saving measure than access to sterile syringes. And though positive steps have been made, it’s vital that the governor take action to make PrEP accessible and available to everyone in need now.
However, waiting on government to act is not something that AIDS activists did in the ’80s and not something we should do now. As we were dying, the government was busy in underfunded labs looking at poppers and too much semen as the cause of the new epidemic. It was gay men who created safer sex and promoted it. It was gay men and allies who fought back in the streets when the Reagan administration continued to ignore the deaths of Americans from the epidemic, years on. And they chanted, while fighting for access to life saving clinical trials, ‘Nothing about us, without us.’
We owe to their memories to respond with no less urgency to the ongoing HIV crisis in our state. And those who are struggling with the disease need help now. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Now. To that end, here’s how you can act right now:
– If you are sexually active or if you use drugs, get on PrEP. Now.
– If you are on PrEP, advertise it loudly on all your social media including your hook-up apps. Normalize PrEP as an expectation, not an exception.
– If you are HIV-positive, stay in medical care and stay on your medications.
– All of us must stop the tyranny of “disease-free” tag on social media and hook-up apps. With PrEP and treatment as prevention, both positive and negative persons have the tools to stop transmissions. Don’t let others separate our community with this stigmatization.
– Hold fundraisers for your local HIV organization to raise money to specifically assist uninsured and underinsured persons gain access to PrEP.
– Write your lawmakers and your governor.