Later this month the International AIDS conference returns to the U.S. for the first time in 22 years when Washington, D.C., will play host to more than 20,000 global researchers, advocates and healthcare professionals July 22-27.
While there is a sense of optimism that researchers are closer than ever to a cure, local leaders — particularly in Charlotte's black and gay communities — are far from convinced an end is near.
About 34 million people worldwide have HIV including nearly 1.2 million Americans according to the Associated Press.
The Rev. Deborah Warren is founder, president, and CEO of the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network, an HIV nonprofit in the Charlotte metropolitan area that provides client services, such as case management.
"Today, people often ask me, 'Do many HIV-positive people live in this region?' or, 'Is AIDS still a problem?'" Warren said. "It breaks my heart to say that it's a bigger problem in my beloved South than I could have ever imagined."
On Monday, July 9, the NAACP mobilized clergy throughout Charlotte to participate in the first annual Day of Unity, an event designed to inspire pastors to treat HIV/AIDS as a social justice issue when discussing the virus with parishioners. Using the NAACP's new manual, "The Black Church and HIV: The Social Justice Imperative," clergy throughout the Charlotte area are talking to their communities the health equity aspect of the virus, or getting those infected fair and equal access to treatment and preventative services.
With more than 21,000 U.S., predominantly African American churches have the potential to make a significant impact in the battle against HIV/AIDS in their communities. In Charlotte, where there is the greatest proportion of people living with HIV in the state, this is particularly true. The NAACP is calling on faith leaders across the city to recommit to social justice and fight for health equity for their congregates.
"There is an immediate need for our faith leaders to take action to address what is happening in our community," said Roslyn Brock, chairwoman of the NAACP's National Board of Directors. "Throughout our history, the NAACP and the black church have worked together to combat policies and practices that undermine human rights and social justice. Health equity is the fight for our generation. We encourage all pastors in Charlotte to dispel the myths about HIV and talk about it as a social justice issue."
Earlier this year, Duke University Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research released a report on the HIV/AIDS crisis in the South. The report cites a group of "targeted states" that have been especially affected, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and parts of Texas. These states have the highest rates of new HIV infections and the highest HIV death rates compared to other regions in the U.S. The study also found that HIV-positive people living in the South are less likely to take life-sustaining medication.
"The South has a lot of challenges that feed its HIV epidemic, including high poverty levels, lack of insurance, lower levels of education and less access to health care," Warren said. "The effects of HIV-related stigma cannot be underestimated. Stigma impacts choices about preventive behaviors, whether to get tested, take medication or invest in one's health."
While the tone of the upcoming International Aids Conference is indeed hopeful, cautious optimism is more the order of the day in Charlotte.
"For the first time in recent memory, our nation's leaders have spoken of an AIDS-free generation," said Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP. "Advancements in prevention and treatment have put the end in our sights. But only if we act. Without action, the epidemic will continue to disproportionately affect our communities."