Opinion: Atlanta an epicenter of fight on HIV/AIDS: Progress made, more work ahead

Nearly 25 years ago, the AIDS epidemic was still at its peak. An HIV diagnosis was often considered a death sentence and the future was bleak. What was clearly needed, however, was compassionate medical care and support services for people living with HIV/AIDS, and a commitment to identifying ways for them to live with this newly-identified disease with a focus on care that included empathy, dignity, comfort and encouragement.

To address this crisis, the Grady Health System opened the Ponce de Leon Center in 1993, beginning a new chapter in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Atlanta. The Ponce Center houses one of the nation’s largest and most comprehensive programs for the treatment of advanced HIV/AIDS. Half of all people diagnosed at the Ponce Center arrive to care with late-stage HIV. Serving approximately 6,000 people a year, the Ponce Center provides life-sustaining care for one in four Georgians living with HIV/AIDS. In partnership with the Center for AIDS Research at Emory University, the Ponce Center has been home to clinical research and trials that have had significant impact in the field.

While we have made great progress against the disease, there remains work to be done in the quest towards eradicating HIV/AIDS in Atlanta and in the state of Georgia. Statistics show that Atlanta ranks fourth among U.S. metropolitan cities for new HIV diagnoses and Georgia ranks fifth among states. These numbers are in line with trends seen across the Southern United States where, according to the CDC, this region now experiences the greatest burden of HIV infection, illness and death of any U.S. region and lags far behind in providing quality HIV prevention and care to its citizens.

The problem is most acute among people of color, who are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS – most notably Black gay and bisexual men, Black women and transgender women. The reasons are a convergence of factors including social issues such as racism, misogyny, homophobia and HIV stigmatization, as well as structural inequalities.

Addressing these disparities will require increased funding and medical resources from national, state and regional entities, and a community-based approach that adapts best-practices and makes culturally sensitive improvements based on lessons learned.

To help accomplish that goal, Gilead Sciences Inc. this month announced the launch of the Gilead COMPASS (Commitment to Partnership in Addressing HIV/AIDS in Southern States) Initiative, a 10-year, $100 million commitment to support organizations working to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Southern United States. Gilead will support three coordinating centers to lead the corporate giving program of the initiative, including Atlanta-based Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, which will tackle capacity-building and shared knowledge among underfunded, community-based organizations.

Initiatives of this type need to sit alongside structural and cultural interventions to have the greatest impact. As we look to the future, the Ponce Center will also be embarking on a $23 million renovation and expansion to modernize its facilities to ensure it can serve more patients and expand its research.

For people living here who are most at-risk of contracting HIV, this progress is critical. Through these initiatives, we can start to alter the trajectory of HIV/AIDS in our city, our state and in the Southern United States.

Frank Blake is chair of the Grady Memorial Hospital Corp. board, and retired chairman and CEO of The Home Depot. Douglas M. Brooks is senior director for Community Engagement at Gilead Sciences Inc. and former director of the Office of National AIDS Policy during the Obama administration.

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