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Courage, Strength, Resilience: Women Fight AIDS

The Kaiser Foundation hosts an event for the launch of EMPOWERED, Alicia Keys' new campaign to help end the HIV/AIDs epidemic.

On Monday, I attended the launch of EMPOWERED, Alicia Keys’ new campaign with Greater than AIDS to reach and inform women about HIV/AIDS, at an event hosted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. This is the second event that Alicia Keys and I have attended at Kaiser within the last year, both focused on ending AIDS.

The women were thrilled to meet Alicia Keys, and Alicia, who was deeply moved by their stories, committed to add her powerful international voice to helping to end the epidemic here in the U.S. Alicia and I intended to lift up the women. But really, it was their strength, courage, resilience, good spirit, and humor that lifted us up.

The HIV crisis touches every corner of the globe. And it’s personally touched so many of us, including here at home. We all have tragic stories about how HIV/AIDS has affected our family and friends, and these stories propel us all to continue to fight to end this disease.

Monday's event addressed one of the tragic realities of HIV in our country. The HIV epidemic continues in the United States, with about 50,000 new HIV infections each year. And while about one-quarter of new HIV infections are among women, three-quarters of new infections among women occur among black and Latina women.

The rate of new HIV infections among African-American women is 20 times higher compared with white women; among Latinas, the rate is 4 times higher.

There is no doubt: the statistics are sobering. Every part of society has a role to play in ending AIDS. On our end, President Obama has recognized the need for immediate action. Here are just a few of the steps we’ve already taken to defeat AIDS:

First, President Obama released the nation’s first comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy, a blueprint for how to make greater progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS, through reducing health disparities and improving health and wellness for everyone living with HIV.

To this end, the President’s 2014 budget, which he released last week, includes over $23 billion to address HIV/AIDS in the United States, including an additional $10 million from 2012 for the Centers for Disease Control to provide critical prevention interventions. The budget also includes an additional $20 million for the Ryan White Program, named after a young man who fought discrimination and for his right to go to school, to increase access to life-extending care and treatment.

For women specifically, thousands of women at risk for and living with HIV will benefit from the Affordable Care Act. Thanks to this law, millions of women now have access to preventative services, including HIV testing, without cost sharing.

And starting next year, insurance companies are prohibited from charging women higher insurance premiums than men, or denying insurance for pre-existing conditions, including HIV infection.

We are also addressing the fact that women who live with HIV are at greater risk of experiencing domestic violence or assault. We need holistic solutions. That’s why President Obama established a working group focusing on the intersection of HIV/AIDS, Violence against Women and Girls, and gender-related health disparities.

Recently released national data included some good news– HIV infections among women dropped by 21% between 2008 and 2010, and we are hopeful that this trend continues. However, stigma and misconceptions continue to be significant drivers of HIV, keeping many from talking openly, using protection, getting tested, and starting and staying on treatment.

At a government level, we continue to address HIV-related stigma as well, which we know is a tremendous barrier to women seeking care. For example, we are aggressively pursuing cases of alleged discrimination through the Department of Justice and the Department of Labor.

In addition to the progress that the Obama Administration is making on a policy level, Monday's EMPOWERMENT launch by Alicia attests to the fact that all of us have the responsibility and ability to help end the disease. And that’s why Alicia’s campaign is so exciting.

She knows that we can reach the end of HIV/AIDS—but a key part of getting there is recognizing the power women have to turn the epidemic around. It’s no accident that during this year’s State of the Union, in the same sentence in which the President spoke of reaching an AIDS-free generation, he spoke of empowering women. We can turn the corner on the AIDS epidemic, but we will only succeed if we embrace that power.

Please learn more about EMPOWERMENT here.