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Observing World AIDS Day During the Time of COVID-19

For more than 30 years, World AIDS Day has been observed on December 1, having been first conceived in August 1987 by James W. Bunn and Thomas Netter, public information officers for the Global Program on AIDS at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

And each year around the world, consumers, community members, activists, and policy makers unite in the fight against HIV, showing support for people living with HIV, and honoring those who have died from AIDS-related illnesses.

Operation Warp Speed has funded COVID-19 research at a scale and pace the world has never seen before. However, in contrast, it took years of protests and organizing to propel governments to fund HIV/AIDS research. Even in 2020, some countries are still slow to move on easing access to scientific breakthroughs such as lifesaving preventative drugs, Prep and Pep.

This year, World AIDS Day is competing for airtime, up against another pandemic dominating media outlets and airwaves.

The goal of World AIDS Day should be to inspire communities to create programs to remind the public that even during a different global pandemic, HIV is still relevant and preventable. And while the CDC recommends routine testing of sexually active adults, only about half of adults in the U.S. have ever been tested. Moreover, sex education programs continue to provide abstinence only curriculums, a complete disservice for youth looking for guidance beyond the pregnancy and/or STD prevention landscape.

New studies are showing that COVID-19 is having an impact on access to medication and care for HIV/AIDS. A new analysis by UNAIDS has revealed the potential impacts that COVID-19 could have in low- and middle-income countries on supplies of the generic antiretroviral medicines used to treat HIV.

The lockdowns and border closures imposed to stop COVID-19 are also impacting both the production of medicines and their distribution, potentially leading to increases in their cost and supply chain issues.

Alarmingly still, a recent New York Times article referenced the decline of HIV testing during the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that although deaths related to HIV in the United States fell significantly from 2010 through 2018, it is possible the pandemic has dampened these improvements. Many facilities have shuttered their HIV clinics or reported decreases in the number of people using their services.

The theme of World AIDS Day 2020, "Ending the HIV/AIDS Epidemic: Resilience and Impact" signals to communities around the world that despite shifting funds and efforts to fight COVID-19, activists, scientists, and principal investigators are still invested in HIV prevention and research.

In Newark, our network of survivors and activists are clearly committed to this theme. For example, one long-term survivor and member of the Research Community Advisory Board, recently spoke of his experience in the beginning of the HIV pandemic.

"Newark was not prepared. We were naïve, but when HIV hit the ballroom and club community it was devastating. You could go out one week and you would hear about 10 to 15 people dying. Don Ransom and James Credle taught us about HIV and AIDS and safer sex practices, because in our families that didn't happen. Teaching how to put on a condom and getting people to talk about HIV and how it impacted our communities was so important because in the beginning, we didn't know what HIV was or the damage it could do, and I was dealing with abandonment because half of my friends were gone. It was a scary time because so many people were impacted but there wasn't any support from our leaders or institutions until Ryan White and Rock Hudson spoke out. That's why it's so important for people to get involved!"

Overall, World AIDS Day aims to amplify that communities can make the difference. Many healthcare organizations, including Rutgers New Jersey Medical School's infectious disease practice, offer free lubrication and condoms, and access to free rapid confidential HIV testing. The red ribbons displayed on bulletin boards highlight the importance of knowing one's status and getting consistent care. They are also a call to action to stop HIV. Even amidst a COVID-19 surge, society cannot forget the millions of lives lost to HIV/AIDS. NJMS invites all members of the community to observe World AIDS Day, with a somber promise toward the future to never forget.