Public Investment Agenda, Part III. Common Sense HIV/AIDS policy

By: - February 7, 2005 9:34 pm

Monday was National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the latest reminder that the AIDS epidemic is still raging in North Carolina and across the nation, still taking lives and devastating families. There is still no cure for the disease, but drug therapies can keep many people infected with HIV alive. Thoughtful policies and adequately funded prevention programs have proven effective in reducing the infection rate.

Yet in 2005 the access to lifesaving medicine is still denied to people who can’t afford it, prevention programs are starved for funding, and creative policies to lower the infection rate are avoided by state lawmakers, worried about the political implications of votes that will save lives. As a result, more people will die, more people will become infected, more families will lose a loved one.

The News and Observer of Raleigh marked National Black HIV/AIDS day with a collection of articles that put of a face on the disease and reminded us of the facts you have read here before, facts that AIDS activists and public health professionals know all too well.

An estimated 25,000 people are now living with HIV/AIDS in North Carolina, including 2,100 newly diagnosed cases in 2003. Twenty-five years ago two-thirds of HIV/AIDS were spread by gay sex. Now more cases are spread by heterosexual contact.

African-Americans are 22 percent of North Carolina’s population but 71 percent of the state’s HIV/AIDS cases. Black women are 14 times as likely to have HIV as white women. The state spends almost $150 million a year on Medicaid for people with HIV/AIDS

Still wondering if HIV/AIDS is still a crisis in North Carolina?

The150 people marching in downtown Raleigh Monday behind a banner recognizing National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day didn’t need any convincing. The overwhelmingly African-American crowd heard from ministers, state health officials, activists and a person living with HIV.

Missing from the News and Observer story, but very much on the minds of the marchers were a few other facts, that North Carolina hasn’t increased funding for AIDS prevention programs in the last three years, that the state has the most restrictive eligibility standard in the country for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), and that state lawmakers refuse to allow a clean needle exchange program that would dramatically decrease the infection rate.

Sensible AIDS policies must be part of the public investment agenda that Governor Mike Easley and legislative leaders should embrace this year. Just $4 million more a year for prevention programs would reduce the number of infections. Roughly $12 million a year would significantly increase the eligibility level for AIDS drugs. North Carolina currently denies the $13,000 a year medicine to anyone who earns more than $11,600 a year. Even at that absurd eligibility level, the state had more than half of the waiting list in the nation for the drugs until additional, one-time federal funding came to the state.

Finally, lawmakers should follow the advice of public health professionals, law enforcement officials, and AIDS advocates and change North Carolina law to allow needle exchange programs for IV drug users. Studies are clear that the programs reduce HIV infection and increase the number of addicts who enter treatment programs.

One of the signs at Monday’s rally said that “AIDS has awakened our community.”

How many more people have to suffer from HIV/AIDS in North Carolina before lawmakers are awakened too, and finally act to save lives?

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066