NGO Delegate Charles King, North America
“There was a time when NYC, where I live, was the global epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. Today, New York state still has the highest number of HIV infections in the US. But, we have gone from 15% at peak of the US epidemic to now 7% of the US epidemic. And just this last Sunday, as you noted in your report, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, on the occasion of LGBT Pride Day, announced his commitment to develop plan to end AIDS as an epidemic in NY State by 2020.
I believe this is the first such pubic commitment of any state in the world. And I hope it will lead other jurisdictions around the US and the globe to step forward with similar accelerated targets that will allow us to finally end the epidemic by 2030. But, I also think it is important for this body to appreciate how it came about and what made these commitment possible.
The first thing you should know is that this announcement was initiated, not by our government, but by civil society, including charitable organizations formed years ago, by and for people living with HIV and AIDS and who are still in the fight, such as Housing Works and Treatment Action Group. We were the ones who convened a series of summits, initially among ourselves and then inviting government to the table, to ask if the time was not ripe to take this step. We were the ones who met with the governor’s staff and proposed a plan of action. And we were the ones who, working with our state’s AIDS institute, convened meetings with stakeholders around the state and even brought drug manufacturers to the table to lower their prices so that the plan would be affordable. Finally, we were the ones who told Governor Cuomo we would challenge him publicly for his lack of courage if he did not make his commitment public by Gay Pride Day.
You should also know that a key change that made our plan possible was the implementation of state and federal initiatives that have made access to health insurance almost universal for the first time in the history of our state. This has allowed us to conceive of moving away from isolated testing for HIV to targeting key populations for enrollment in culturally competent primary care so that HIV prevention, testing and treatment becomes a part of routine holistic health care that focuses on the well-being of the whole person, and includes universal access to treatment, services and care.
We have insisted with our government on a human rights based approach, where education, not coercion, brings and keeps people in care. Already, we have one of the most extensive harm reduction programs, including syringe exchange, in the world and have virtually eliminated HIV transmission through injection drug use. Now we are transforming our harm reduction program to be a fully recognized drug treatment modality, not just an AIDS response, and are fighting to legalize syringes and for increased drug decriminalization. Likewise, we have insisted in prohibiting law enforcement’s use of the possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution, and on a state law that fully recognizes and protects the rights of transgender people.
Last, but not least, we already had an extensive system of social protection, care and support, much of it created and delivered by civil society who fought for and won government funding for much of this. Now, as part of our plan to end AIDS, we are insisting on more. New York is already the only state n the US that recognizes housing as an entitlement for people [living] with AIDS. We are now insisting that this entitlement be expanded to all people with HIV. We are also insisting on education and employment opportunities for people living with HIV, because key to treatment adherence is that people living with HIV have the opportunity to live full and productive lives that offer a meaningful future.
At Housing Works, we have taken a whole new approach to treatment adherence, turning stigma into a badge of honor. We call ourselves “the undetectables” and proudly wear a button, which those who know the code recognize as the mark of a “super hero,” because it is our commitment to remain virally suppressed in the face of so many challenges that will end the AIDS epidemic.
These are all essential ingredients to ending AIDS. But, until last Sunday, when the governor made his announcement, we still lacked one: that being political will. Now that Governor Cuomo has made his public pledge, we will hold him accountable. And with that, I believe New York State will end AIDS as an epidemic by 2020, and serve as a role model for other jurisdictions.”