Waking America up about AIDS

April 24, 2009

Dr. Kevin Fenton — Dr. Kevin Fenton is the CDC’s director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention. The views expressed are his own. —

Recent months have brought startling reminders about the HIV crisis in the United States.

When health officials in Washington, DC reported that three percent of city residents are living with HIV, including nearly seven percent of the city’s black men, the media and much of the nation reacted with surprise.  Yet, the reality is that DC is not the only American city that faces a severe HIV epidemic.  Many urban areas-from major cities like San Francisco and New York to smaller communities like Columbia, South Carolina and Jackson, Mississippi, are heavily impacted by HIV and AIDS.

At a national level, the latest estimates suggest that roughly 56,000 Americans are becoming infected each year.  That means that every 9 ½ minutes, another American becomes infected with HIV.

This week, the Obama Administration launched a new campaign to combat what we believe is a severe threat to the health of the nation. That threat is complacency about HIV – a false sense of security and calm that hides what remains a health crisis.

While once at the forefront of American consciousness, the HIV epidemic seems to have faded from view in this country.  New data released last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the proportion of people who say they have seen, heard, or read about the problem of AIDS in the U.S. declined from 70 percent five years ago to 45 percent today.  And the proportion of people who rank HIV/AIDS as the most urgent health problem facing the nation has dropped to just six percent – down from almost  half of those surveyed a decade ago.

Perhaps even more concerning are numerous studies among those who are becoming infected — from African American women to gay and bisexual men of all races — finding that far too many of these individuals did not even recognize they were at risk.  Still others believe that due to the latest HIV treatments, having HIV is simply not that big of a deal anymore.  And they are taking greater risks as a result.

As anyone living with the disease will tell you, HIV is a big deal.  HIV infection changes lives forever.  While treatments prolong many lives, those treatments have side-effects, don’t work for everyone, and don’t reach everyone in time to be effective.

In fact, more than 14,000 Americans still die with AIDS every year.   And of the more than one million Americans now living with HIV, one in  five are not even aware of their HIV infection.

In America, in 2009, HIV and AIDS should not be taking such a toll.

Through the new five-year campaign just announced, called Act Against AIDS, CDC will work to confront complacency and put the U.S. HIV epidemic back on the national radar screen.  As part of this national campaign, we’re launching public service ads in transit systems, airports, online, and on the radio to remind Americans of the continued severity of the HIV crisis here at home.  We are making a range of tools available via the campaign website – www.NineAndaHalfMinutes.org – to help people find an HIV testing site, learn how to protect themselves, get the facts about HIV, and share information via social networking sites.

To encourage broad use of campaign materials and messages, CDC is working with the Kaiser Family Foundation to establish a coalition of media partners committed to increasing knowledge of HIV and AIDS in the United States.

We will also be designing and delivering targeted messages to the populations most affected – African Americans, Latinos, and gay and bisexual men of all races – to help motivate and maintain safer behavior. And given that African Americans face the most severe burden of HIV in the nation–accounting for nearly half of all new HIV infections–CDC is partnering with leading African American organizations – from the NAACP to the National Council of Negro Women – to ensure that HIV prevention messages reach black communities across the country.

We know that information campaigns alone can’t change complex behaviors.  But, they can help break through complacency, and help link people to the information and services they need to protect themselves and their loved ones from this still-deadly disease.

Still, far more will be needed, and expanding the reach of HIV testing and prevention programs will require leadership and resolve from all sectors of society-government, communities, organizations, and individuals.

Ending the U.S. HIV epidemic won’t be easy.  But it is possible, if we share a collective responsibility for action, increase the sense of urgency, and wake America up again to this very real, but preventable, threat to our nation.


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Mr. Fenton you are correct. HIV Is poised to become an epidemic in all of our inner cities where the cycle of poverty and incarceration are prevalent. There is prevailing view amongst pundits and policymakers that little can be done about education, health care, climate change and their related crisis’ until we “fix” the economy.In fact the world economic conditions dominate the news or the impact it will have on the troubles humanity faces. This is most unfortunate. Human need and survival has taken a back seat to the concerns for industries run by unscrupulous and greedy men. As if these saving these failed institutions are the key to our survival. I sense an almost pagan type worship of the economic system and it’s institutions.Perhaps instead of investing our grandchildren’s future earnings in banks and corporations now, we should invest in healthcare, education, alternative energy and transportation for people. It would cost a lot less and probably create a whole lot more jobs.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

You claim “information campaigns alone can’t change complex behaviors,” and you’re absolutely right- each person is responsible for their own “behaviors”, complex or otherwise. If HIV/AIDS has faded to the background it’s because people know about it, people know how you get it, and they will either make good choices or they won’t. I won’t spare another second of my life thinking about this non-issue because I do not engage in any of the “complex behaviors” that will infect me with HIV. Every nine and a half minutes someone in this country may slam their hand in a door but I don’t think we need a taxpayer-funded “information campaign” about the dangers of self-inflicted door injuries.

Posted by Artful | Report as abusive

“I won’t spare another second of my life thinking about this non-issue because I do not engage in any of the “complex behaviors” that will infect me with HIV.” – posted by Artful_____________________________Are you sure you’ll never need blood transfusion? Are you sure one of the medical practitioners you see will never try to save a buck by reusing single use supplies? Are you sure you’ll never exchange biological fluids with your surgeon/dentist, who earlier exchanged those fluids with someone infected? No “complex behaviors” act necessary – an accidental finger prick by a syringe will do.None of these risks is urban legend stuff. The news a few weeks ago were full of a NJ oncologist who was “not following a proper procedure” or whatever official formula was about using same catheters on multiple patients. Now he’s appealing license suspension. A few years ago I red in a mag (offered to visitors in a dental office – what a coincident!) about a girl who got HIV from her openly gay dentist. And people in need of regular blood transfusions, like hemophiliacs, are recognized as high HIV infection risk group, even though they not necessarily engage in any of the “complex behaviors”.Having said that, there’s no excuse for the ones who either knowingly or stupidly engage into these “complex behaviors”, even less so the ones who make these “complex behaviors” a subject of pride.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Use condoms. Use discernment and common sense. Don’t sleep with round heels and hook-ups. Take care of yourself so you are clean,strong and healthy. Those simple things will significantly lower your risk of any illness, including HIV…

Posted by phoenix1 | Report as abusive

[…] the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a column, the CDC’s Dr. Kevin Fenton writes about the need to keep AIDS on the national radar. The government campaign will focus on using Facebook and text messaging to encourage testing and […]

Posted by AIDS walk this weekend, concern about complacency – Healthy Living – OCRegister.com | Report as abusive

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Posted by anita45 | Report as abusive