In early September, I had the opportunity to speak in New Orleans at the United States Conference on AIDS. I shared the story of my cousin, Katherine, who lost her fight against AIDS in 2007 leaving behind three teenage girls whose outlook and opportunities in life were immediately and significantly dimmed upon her death. I talked about the silence that once governed our public conversations about this epidemic, the silence that existed for years within my own family, but also about the healing that comes when we break that silence by honoring the stories and the lives of those living with HIV and AIDS and our own personal connections.
Because of my cousin’s battle, with the three-decade-old epidemic, I’ve changed the way I talk about HIV and AIDS, because it's my battle too. HIV and AIDS is not someone else’s issue to deal with, it’s all of ours. Every December 1, World AIDS Day, I remember her just as I have in previous years but with a renewed sense of hope and community as many around join together to strengthen the fight for an AIDS-free generation.
African Americans make up more than 500,000 of the more than 1.1 million people that are living with HIV in this country — while representing only 13 percent of the nation’s population. And each year, African Americans account for almost half of all new HIV infections in the U.S.; this is more than any other group. In the South (United States) alone, African-American women account for seven out of ten new HIV diagnoses among women in the entire region. Cities like New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Miami have some of the highest rates of new HIV infections of new HIV infections in the nation.
Thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), millions that did not have health care will be eligible for health insurance and HIV care. Insurers will be required to fully cover annual counseling and screening for HIV infection for all sexually active women, as well as HIV screening for people aged 13-64, who are at higher risk for contracting the disease. Organizations like Planned Parenthood are working tirelessly in communities with some of the largest health care disparities to educate people about ACA enrollment and to provide HIV testing and positive sexual health education. It’s so important that everyone learns the benefits of ACA, and can do so on websites like Planned Parenthood Health Insurance.
Annually, Planned Parenthood health centers across the country see nearly three million patients and reach more than one million people through education programs. Last year, Planned Parenthood health centers provided nearly 4.5 million tests and treatments for sexually transmitted infections. Of those, 680,000 were HIV tests.
I am proud of the work that Planned Parenthood does, standing strong with the community in the fight for the healthiest generation. A generation that no longer has to lose cousins, mothers, family members, friends, and loved ones to the devastating AIDS epidemic. But more importantly, I’m proud that this year on World AIDS Day, we stand in unison with our partners around the globe to celebrate our accomplishments and continue this fight together.
Most importantly, I am proud to tell the story of my cousin, Kathy. I know she would be proud we continue to fight on her behalf.
Alexis McGill Johnson, Planned Parenthood Federation of America Board Chair