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With No One Around To Advise Trump On HIV/AIDS, We Risk Upending Past Victories

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People visit the AIDS Memorial Quilt on display on the National Mall in Washington as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in July 2012.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
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You don’t hear about HIV/AIDS much anymore. That’s the good and the bad news.

Good because the disease that ravaged the country world in the 1980s no longer claims the millions of victims it once did. Bad because too many people believe modern medicine has cured HIV/AIDS. Not true. In fact, 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. More than 37,000 contracted HIV in 2016, and nearly 7,000 died from it. But that’s a five percent drop in the last few years. Yes, it’s still a killer, but what was an almost certain death sentence is now more a chronic illness, that can be managed with a combination of drug and health regimens.

Activists and scientists pushed hard to get to this reality from the time President Ronald Reagan declared HIV and AIDS a public health crisis in 1986, six years into his presidency. I can’t forget the images of the gaunt pockmarked patients clinging to life as the epidemic raged. And I remember the mob-like public fear that swept the country — when HIV/AIDS victims were shunned, families disowning them, churches refusing to bury them. Fear and stigma led to violence and fatal beatings. Rallies and protests forced a change in public policy. Policy that finally had the backing of political leadership, which, in turn, led to ongoing educational and financial support from the federal government.

So, it means something that President Trump has fired all the remaining members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Six members resigned last year in June with a blunt joint statement, reading, “The Trump Administration does not take the ongoing epidemic, or needs of people living with HIV seriously.” I can’t tell if President Trump’s firing is strictly political or something much more sinister, and sad to say, not unexpected from this administration. Is this simply yet another routing of Obama administration (and some Bush) appointees? Or — equally problematic — is this a confirmation of his plan to strip HIV/AIDS monies and redistribute the funding to his otherwise unfunded opioid proposal?

President Trump has said fired members can reapply for his new Presidential Advisory Council, though no word on when or if there will be a new council.

I don’t want to be alarmist, but I am concerned about the long-term impact of pink slipping these high-level HIV/AIDS health and science advocates. Health experts know how easy it is for lack of education to undermine past victories — for example, the recent worrisome rise in polio cases worldwide. As it is, 15 percent of Americans, or one in seven, are infected with HIV and don’t know it. A lot of those victims live in the South, where the numbers of young bisexual and gay men and black heterosexual women are high. In most Southern states overall, there is still limited access to health care, and health care education is not often a priority.

But, as with any public health concern, the impact of HIV/AIDS is not limited to certain groups. In the end, we are all at risk if we allow political, personal, or casual disinterest to upend progress in corralling a dreaded disease. Right now is as good a time as any to recall — again — the passionate mantra of AIDS activists: silence equals death.

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