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Putting HIV/AIDS Back on the Front Burner

Front BurnerTwo days ago, we introduced you to the efforts of the Global Media AIDS Initiative (GMAI) to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS in South America through creative uses of media, such as telenovelas (aka soap operas), and public service announcements (PSAs).

We applauded these efforts because:

  • Young people (15-24) account for 45% of all new HIV infections worldwide; and
  • Less than 50% of youth in this age bracket in 64 countries have accurate information about how the disease is spread, according to this recent study.

Unfortunately, there is need for a similar awareness campaign in the United States.

A new survey done by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the public’s sense of urgency and concern about HIV/AIDS is down.

This is true even after the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced less than a year ago that the epidemic is much larger in the United States than once believed. The CDC now estimates that there have been 40% more new infections each year than previously thought.

Despite this information, Americans have become less concerned about HIV/AIDS as both a public health issue and a personal threat.

This is even the case amongst groups that are labeled as being at “high-risk” for contracting the disease.

The share of Americans naming HIV/AIDS as the most urgent health problem facing the nation dropped from 44% in 1995 to 17% in 2006 and to 6% in 2009.

  • Amongst 18-29 year olds, those who say they are personally very concerned about becoming infected with HIV declined from 30% in 1997 to 17% today;
  • Personal concern among young African Americans declined from 54% to 40% over the same time period.

As a result, the number of individuals being tested for HIV/AIDS has stagnated:

  • More than half (53%) of non-elderly adults say that they have been tested for HIV, including 19% who say they were tested in the past year.
  • Testing is most common among adults under the age of 30, with three in ten young adults and nearly half (47%) of young African Americans reporting having been tested in the past year.
  • These testing rates have not changed much in the past decade.

So why are folks becoming complacent about the disease now?

Well, for one, our newspapers, radio and television news are not talking about HIV/AIDS.

  • The percentage of people who say that have heard, seen or read “a lot” or “some” about the impact the disease is having in the United States is down to 45% this year, from 70% in 2004.
  • The old maxim, “Out of sight, out of mind,” certainly applies here.

And advances in retroviral therapy has made living with the disease more manageable, making people think that there is a cure for it. The truth is that  it is  still very difficult (and extremely expensive) to treat HIV/AIDS over the long-term.

  • As a result, young people may be less likely to take personal precautions because they either believe that 1) they can’t die from HIV/AIDS or 2) that HIV is curable.

According to the Kaiser study:

  • Nearly 1 in 5 (18%) Americans do not know that there is no cure for AIDS; and
  • 1 in 4 (25%) believe or are unsure if there is a vaccine to prevent HIV infection.
  • (Note: there is no vaccine available to date.)

For these reasons, President Obama’s announcement of a $45 million, 5-year campaign known as Act Against AIDS is especially timely.

But critics are already saying that this sum is not enough to provide necessary education and testing services where they are needed most.

The President’s campaign, which will spend $9 million per year for five years, aims to spread awareness about the disease through public service announcements, advertising on trains and buses, text messages and a website, Nine and a Half Minutes.org.

The website name comes from the fact that one person is newly infected every 9.5 minutes in the U.S. The White House will partner with the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS).

The initiative will specifically target high-risk groups, such as African-Americans and Latinos, that have been traditionally overlooked by non-profits working on the epidemic domestically.

  • While African-Americans make up 12% of the population nationwide, they account for roughly 50% of new HIV infections.

In response to these plans, the President of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) Michael Weinstein said that the allocated funding is not enough.

His organization and others are urging the President to set aside $200 million so that a wide scale testing program may be put in place alongside of the advertising/teaching component of the campaign.

  • In 2006, the CDC recommended that HIV testing become routine procedure in all healthcare settings (such as emergency rooms and community clinics) for every individual between the ages of 13 and 64.
  • These recommendations have not been put into place due to in-fighting about who will absorb the cost of the tests- the state governments, or the healthcare providers themselves.
  • We’ll keep you updated as more funding decisions are made on this critical issue.

Alerting people about the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, and encouraging them to get tested is a good investment: Such campaigns not only help to improve overall health outcomes for the U.S. population, but may also reduce total health expenditures in the long-run.

Paying for HIV/AIDS treatments and medications is expensive.

  • The lifetime cost of treating an HIV/AIDS patient is estimated to be about $600,000.
  • Most HIV patients must take three or four drugs per month to stay alive. These drugs cost anywhere from $500-$1000 each.

Those with private insurance are lucky, as AIDS medications and other treatments are usually covered in full.  But those without insurance (which is the majority of AIDS patients) must rely on government assistance programs, including Medicaid and Medicare, to pay for their care.

In fiscal year 2002, federal spending on HIV/AIDS-related medical care, research, prevention and other activities was estimated to be $14.7 billion.  Of that, more than half ($8.7 billion) was spent on healthcare and related support services for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Medicaid is the largest source of public funding for AIDS-related care.

  • 7.7 billion Medicaid dollars paid for HIV treatments in 2002; $4.2 billion of which came from the federal government and $3.5 billion came from state funds.
  • Federal Medicaid spending on AIDS tripled between 1995 and 2003.

We need to remember that just because we don’t see something doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.  And we need to educate our children so that their lives are not destroyed by this illness.

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