On World AIDS Day, We Recommit to Prioritizing Young People

By Sonya Laddon Rahders, J.D., Law Students for Reproductive Justice Law & Policy Fellow at Advocates for Youth.

In July 2015, the White House released a new National HIV/AIDS Strategy. Thanks to coordinated advocacy efforts, the Strategy for the first time prioritized young people, furthering our goal of reaching an AIDS-free generation. Today, they will release the Implementation Plan that outlines just how these goals will be achieved. But what does that mean for young people moving forward? What does it mean for our communities? Here, we take a brief look at what it took to get here, and what it means for the future. And to honor World AIDS Day, we recommit to prioritizing young people in HIV and AIDS responses.



Background: National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States

In 2010, President Obama introduced the first National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States. It was designed to launch a national coordinated effort of federal, state and local agencies working together to reduce new HIV cases and improve quality of care for people living with HIV. The Strategy outlined a vision that all people would be able to access prevention and care, free from stigma and discrimination. To achieve this vision, the strategy focused on four goals: 1) Reducing new HIV infections; 2) Increasing access to care and improving health outcomes for people living with HIV; 3) reducing HIV-related disparities; and 4) coordinating a national response. The initial strategy covered the years 2010 through 2015, and so in 2014 plans began to revise the Strategy through 2020.

The New 2015-2020 National HIV/AIDS Strategy

The new Strategy is centered on the same four goals. There are significant changes, however, based on successes and gaps over the last five years. Importantly, the new Strategy includes explicit focus on young people, identifying youth aged 13-24 as a population for targeted interventions. At least 34,000 young people ages 13-24 are living with HIV in the United States, and one in four new cases of HIV in the U.S. are among young people.

Supporting YMSM of Color

Young men who have sex with men (YMSM) of color are disproportionately affected by HIV, which the new Strategy promises to address through explicit goals. The 2010 strategy acknowledged that YMSM were a particularly impacted population, but did not target solutions for them. The new Strategy also recognizes that “significant racial disparities in HIV [cases] exist in the U.S. There are also racial/ethnic disparities along the care continuum and in premature death.” Rates of HIV cases are increasing among YMSM of color, and specific action items prioritize expanding services to this population, as well as to black women and girls. These populations should be supported by both government and community organizations in HIV testing access, and care after diagnosis or ongoing prevention efforts. Emphasis is placed on culturally-appropriate cases and education models for groups facing highest risk.

Advocating for Comprehensive Sex Education

Additionally, the 2015 Strategy highlights the importance of HIV education as prevention. The Strategy specifically mentions universal integration of HIV information in education, defining this need as one that includes scientifically-accurate and accessible information. There are still a shocking number of states, for example, that mandate by law that students receive HIV education in school, but do not require that this education be medically accurate. The 2010 Strategy did include age-appropriate campaigns, but its increased significance in the 2015 Strategy makes us optimistic as we work to achieve comprehensive sex education for all young people. The Strategy also acknowledges the need for scientifically accurate information about physical health, and social and emotional well-being.

Coordinated Advocacy Efforts Informed the 2015 Strategy

This success was achieved through a combination of policy and organizing efforts over the past year. Over 50 events organized for National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day on April 10 focused on prioritizing young people in the National Strategy. The Presidential Advisory Council on HIV & AIDS (PACHA) heard testimony about the importance of including young people in the national AIDS response, and several young people were successfully nominated to serve on the council. In the summer of 2014 there were listening sessions held in large cities, including New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco, which youth activists attended and raised important questions about their own inclusion. All of this activity behind the scenes and on the ground helped the White House realize just how important it is to support prevention in young communities, and care for young people living with HIV. Their inclusion in the 2015 Strategy highlights a commitment to improving the health and well-being of young people across the nation.

The 2015 Implementation Action Plan: Everyone is Needed.

The new Strategy is a call to action: good work has been done, but more is needed! As the Strategy demands, “Everyone is needed . . . .” Advocates for Youth and our partners eagerly await the opportunity to review the implementation plan, released today, explaining exactly how these goals will be reached. We look forward to support of and funding for comprehensive sex education programs. Youth activists are hopeful for additional recognition of some specific problems facing their own communities, including care access and non-discrimination in housing and shelter for youth with HIV experiencing homelessness; effective needle exchange programs; and training primary care physicians on cultural competence and treating people living with HIV.

Advocates for Youth remains appreciative of the emphasis the National Strategy places on young people, and the efforts that have been made by the White House to include young people as the best sources for decision-making on their own experiences. We anticipate a similarly inclusive Implementation Strategy, and are optimistic about its continued positive impact. This World AIDS Day, we recognize that we each have a role to play in Strategy implementation, and we must hold ourselves accountable to the communities who are impacted the most.

The material in this article was initially presented as a webinar to the National Minority AIDS Council Youth Initiative Scholars group on November 23, 2015.