Health as a Civil Right: Social Justice Leadership in HIV

Gregg H. Alton, Executive Vice President, Corporate and Medical Affairs, Gilead Sciences,Inc

Thirty years ago, even as the warning signs grew clearer, many chose to look the other way when it came to AIDS. Thankfully, we have come a long way since 1981. What made these changes possible? In a word: leadership.

This happened at every level: community, scientific, political, and individual. For people living with HIV, there are now numerous treatment options – some consisting of a single pill once a day – to help them stay healthy and live full lives. We can also prevent transmission from mother to child and new research offers significant promise in the area of HIV treatment as prevention.

As the leader in civil rights, under the direction of Chairman Roslyn M. Brock and President Benjamin Todd Jealous, the NAACP has made HIV a top priority. The Association is mobilizing its members to ensure that people of color include an HIV test as part of their routine health screenings like diabetes and cholesterol; HIV-positive African Americans receive quality care; and communities advocate for reducing HIV disparities.

Faith leadership plays a critical role in changing the course of HIV/AIDS in diverse communities. This is why we are pleased to support the Association in conducting its first-ever assessment of its membership through focus groups, interviews, and surveys of religious leaders nationally to share successes and lessons of local practices in the fight against HIV. The assessment will provide a pathway forward for members to forge change on the frontlines.

The NAACP maintains a legacy of serving as a voice for persons seldom heard and underserved. We applaud the NAACP for creating an echo chamber of voices advocating for those who do not have a voice at the decision-making table; the one in five people living with HIV in the United States who do not know it, the undiagnosed.

In the United States, African Americans still face a higher risk of HIV infection than any other racial or ethnic group as evidenced by AIDSVu.org  an online mapping tool that provides a visual display of the prevalence of HIV. Black men and women of all ages and sexual orientations are less likely than other Americans to know they are infected, are diagnosed late and are less likely to be receiving treatment. We cannot continue to tolerate these disparities.

At Gilead, our passion is discovering and developing new medicines for HIV and other diseases of unmet need. Yet we also believe our responsibility extends beyond the laboratory bench. We’re committed to helping ensure that every American with HIV knows his or her status and has the opportunity to receive the best possible care. We are proud to partner with the NAACP in the fight against HIV to expand access to life-saving HIV education, testing, treatment and prevention in communities where they are needed most.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently proclaimed HIV/AIDS ‘one of six winnable public health battles.’ We have the tools and knowledge to stop this epidemic. If we all play our part, I am incredibly hopeful that one day we will see the end of AIDS.