|Today on World AIDS Day 2015, Physician General Dr. Rachel Levine held a press conference in the State Capitol to highlight the HIV/AIDS healthcare to be advanced in Pennsylvania. The brief event was held in the Capitol Media Center at 3:30pm.
Dr. Levine noted how “World AIDS Day is held on the first of December every year…[as] an opportunity to come together – to show support to those living with HIV, to commemorate those whom we have lost, and to renew our commitment to the prevention and treatment of HIV disease.” She declared that “If an infection does occur, Pennsylvania is committed that every person diagnosed with HIV has unfettered access to high-quality, life-extending care – free from stigma, and free from discrimination.”
Our Physician General reflected on her personal connection to HIV and AIDS, sharing that:
I actually have a long standing professional connection to the HIV epidemic. I was a resident physician in pediatrics, at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, from 1983 to 1988, right through the beginning of this outbreak and epidemic. At that time, at the beginning, there was no understanding, but eventually, [the] very limited understanding of the disease during the 1980s was significant stigma, and really no treatment. A diagnosis of AIDS at that time was literally a death sentence. We have made such significant progress since that time. But, in 2015, HIV disease continues to be a serious public health problem. Every year, almost 50,000 Americans are newly infected with HIV – with more than 1,000 of them right here in Pennsylvania. HIV affects everyone. Regardless of gender, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or socioeconomic circumstances. We still do see specific segments of our population who experience higher rates of HIV disease. Men who have sex with men [MSM] still represent two-thirds of new HIV infections. Injection drug users now account for nearly one in ten new infections. And young people, aged 13-24, are 16% of the population in general, but account to nearly 26% of all new HIV infections.
As an ambassador for Governor Wolf, she noted how the “[Governor] and this administration take this crisis very seriously. The Wolf Administration is committed to a broad policy to respond to this significant public health problem, with a focus on both reducing infections and improving treatment.”
Stressing the importance of prevention she noted that “The first line of defense is always prevention. The Pennsylvania Department of Health encourages all Pennsylvanians to know their status by getting HIV tested. It is estimated that nearly 20% of those infected with HIV are actually not aware that they are infected.” She emphasized how “the Pennsylvania Department of Health makes HIV testing available at a number of sites through a whole network of providers throughout the state.”
Dr. Levine recognized Governor Wolf’s decision to expand Medicaid and the special pharmaceutical benefit program – which increase the ability for those living with HIV or AIDS to access medical care and medications.
She then praised the “the usage of pre-exposure prophylactics, also called PrEP, for individuals who are at high risk for HIV, is now available…the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends that clinicians offer PREP to those who are at high risk of acquiring HIV infection.”
Dr. Levine concluded her remarks by sharing:
“Our goal is to help Pennsylvanians learn their status and get linked to care. If they fall out of care, if individuals fall out of care, we are committed to working with them, to reconnect them to the medical community and the care that they need. This is not an easy task, and will certainly require a clear plan and clear action. I am very pleased to be working with Secretary of Health Karen Murphy, and Governor Wolf and the administration, on this important initiative. And together, working all together, we will make Pennsylvania a place where all new HIV infections are rare, [where] all HIV+ Pennsylvanians have access to appropriate medication and healthcare, and where all HIV+ Pennsylvanians have a high quality of life.“
A reporter then asked Dr. Levine what message Pennsylvanians should take from World AIDS Day, and how much the state spends in addressing HIV and AIDS.
Following the reporters, Jose de Marco from ACT UP Philadelphia asked Dr. Levine to speak to the social injustice that surrounds addressing HIV and AIDS.
“It’s really wonderful to know that this World AIDS Day that the state of Pennsylvania is going to address HIV and AIDS in this state, but in this day and age it is so much more than people not using a condom. Social injustice issues, especially in poor communities of color, homelessness, poverty, drug addiction – all these things are fueling HIV infections in Latino and African American communities. I think we should be doing a better job with PrEP. I’m from the first generation – I remember the time AIDS activists would be screaming on the roof “there is pill out there that can stop you from getting AIDS!’ But until we start to address social injustice issues – and if you look at incarceration rates of African American and Latino men – there tends to be a mirror of HIV infection. So there is obviously an issue of social injustice – and it’s almost proof positive that HIV is a social injustice in 2015. I’m hopeful the Wolf Administration will take a lot of this into consideration, especially when it comes to HIV infections. Generic medicine is much cheaper than a lifetime of AIDS medication.
Dr. Levine responded by saying that
“I agree that we need to get the word out about PrEP to the populations at risk. We need to get the word out there to physicians and healthcare providers and clinics that PREP exists and that it can prevent this illness in people who are at risk. The word I would use is the social determinants of health. All the different types of issues you have talked about are certainly critical in healthcare in general. In the Department of Health we are working on healthcare innovation, which will try to make sure we will have access for the urban, rural populations that need access to medical care in general, and to HIV prevention, testing, and treatment.”
The final question was asked by Paul Yabor, another member of ACT UP Philadelphia.
“One of my concerns going forward is in prevention – this is not going to be an easy task. But there are some policy changes that we feel are necessary, and we have the data to back it up, to make this dream come true – to end AIDS in PA. More specifically, a statewide syringe exchange – and it may be a bit out the realm of health, but it’s still relevant, but housing and Medicaid.”
Dr. Levine responded that “I’m not actually prepared to speak on those issues at this time, but we would certainly take all of your recommendations under advisement into the Governor’s office.”
Confirmed as Physician General on June 9, 2015, she is the fifth person to hold the position of the state’s top doctor since it was created in 1996. At the time of this posting, we could not find information on any internal or public World AIDS Day events held by any of her predecessors.
We applaud Dr. Levine and all those in the medical community advocating for increased and responsible healthcare for those living with HIV and AIDS, as well as policy efforts that directly respond to the complex social justice issues that are intertwined with the crisis in Pennsylvania.