Commentary: What are you doing to help ensure an AIDS-free generation?

December 2, 2013 

Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, and it seems appropriate that we take a moment and reflect on the impact of HIV/AIDS in the United States and in North Carolina.

In the United States, the number of adults living with HIV/AIDS is highest in the South – not in some large city or dense urban population – but right here in the South.

In 2011, North Carolina ranked eighth among all U.S. states and territories for new HIV infections with the North Carolina counties with the highest rates being Mecklenburg, Edgecombe, Durham, Cumberland and Wilson counties.

The southern United States makes up only 37 percent of the population but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the South accounts for 45 percent of the new AIDS diagnoses, 40 percent of people living with AIDS, and, shockingly, almost half all AIDS-related deaths in this country. Sadly, in an era where there is a once-a-day pill to manage HIV/AIDS, it is shameful that people are still dying from AIDS.

Three decades after the initial HIV/AIDS epidemic, we ask what are you doing to help ensure we have an AIDS-free generation?

First, we ask you to please learn the facts. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, having unprotected sex or sharing needles increases risk.

Second, please help our society and communities seek social justice. By addressing the social determinants of health – the conditions in which we are born, grow, live, work and age – and improving social and economic opportunities, we can positively impact the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Third, please help support individuals living with HIV/AIDS. The stigma associated with HIV/AIDS continues to be a barrier to individuals learning their HIV status, accessing HIV treatment early, and adhering to HIV medications. Stigma prevents people from disclosing their HIV status to family members, friends and intimate partners; and ultimately living a healthy and long life.

After 32 years of this epidemic, do you know someone with HIV? Almost 1.1 million Americans, including 27,000 North Carolinians, are living with HIV. At some point in their lifetime, 1 in 16 African-American men, 1 in 36 Latino men, 1 in 32 African-American women, and 1 in 106 Latina women will be diagnosed with HIV infection. As a consequence, someone in your professional, social, church or family network is likely HIV infected. Although they may not have told you that they are infected with HIV, I bet you do know someone.

To bring an end to this epidemic, we can learn the facts, talk with family members about HIV/AIDS, support AIDS community organizations, and take the time to support individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Through our collective efforts, we may help the United States and the South “become a place where new HIV infections are rare and when they do occur, every person, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or socio-economic circumstance, will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination,” as quoted in the The National HIV/AIDS Strategy of the United States.

Michael Relf, PhD, RN, is an associate professor and director of the Accelerated BSN Program at the Duke University School of Nursing. Michelle Hartman, DNP, RN, is an assistant professor at the school.

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