Thirty years ago, months of nationwide protests coordinated through the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) forced pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome to change course.
Burroughs Wellcome, the maker of AZT, an antiretroviral treatment for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) patients, was preparing to sell the life-saving drug at a price so high that federal officials were threatening to step in. And so, under mounting pressure from protesters and public servants in the late summer of 1989, Burroughs Wellcome caved and lowered the cost. That battle over AZT pricing bears a great deal of resemblance to that of our current health care crisis — outspoken advocates, powerful pharmaceutical executives—a similarity which I find equally troubling and hopeful as I reflect on my first year in the General Assembly on this Worldwide AIDS Day.
>Much progress has been made since the campaigns of the ’80s, yet we must memorialize those we lost, many of whom might have been saved had it not been for the violent stigma surrounding Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Despite a decline in new HIV-related infections, per a recent UNAIDS study, HIV/AIDS continues to devastate certain communities and demographic groups around the world as a cure has yet to be found.
More locally, since 1981, as has been written in a 2016 Department of Public Health (DPH) profile of HIV in Connecticut, 20,000 residents have contracted the virus, almost half of whom have died. The profile also found that the leading cause of infection after sexual contact was through injections related to drug use. The opioid epidemic has been a major contributor to past and present rates of HIV/AIDS contraction. However, the demographics most affected have shifted.
Transgender women rank highly in rates of new HIV infections and the trend is increasing. Transgender people, especially transgender women of color, with HIV face barriers to healthcare that other patients may not such as discrimination by health care professionals based on sexual identity and expression. This stigma increases the likelihood that transgender patients avoid getting tested and increase the chances that they discontinue treatment. Transgender people who have been discriminated against in employment or school are also more likely to engage in survival sex work, which puts them at greater risk for contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
According to a recent report out of the Connecticut DPH, the rate of HIV diagnoses among people of color is disproportionately high. In 2017, 40 percent of new cases in Connecticut were identified in Black residents and 29 percent in Hispanic and Latinx residents, despite the fact that these groups make up just 12 and 16 percent of our population, respectively. That same factsheet also reports that rates of contraction among Black women jumped 57 percent between 2013 and 2017. Nationally, the lifetime risk for black men who have sex with men (MSM) is now 1 out of 2, and 1 out of 5 for Hispanic MSMs. These demographic gaps are profound and must be addressed in any and all future legislation involving HIV/AIDS prevention.
As one of only two openly gay elected officials in our state’s General Assembly, I feel an obligation to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS because it disproportionately effects LGBTQ-identifying youth. This year, I had the opportunity to pass reforms like H.B. 6540, which allows minors to request HIV prevention treatment in their own right. Recent data out of DPH shows that the rate of HIV diagnoses for those under the age of 20 has increased steadily over the past two decades, an alarming pattern that this bill intends to reverse through youth empowerment.
Additionally, I helped create the LGBTQ Health and Human Services Network, which will meet for the first time this week with the express purpose of confronting the health care challenges of this diverse group in our state. While I believe these measures to be important steps, there’s so much more work to be done.
With all of this data as a guide and research in the works, we know where to focus our efforts, but they must be holistic in approach. HIV and AIDS still lurk in the shadows of much of our public conversation, but the crisis is intimately tethered to current debates over drug pricing and the opioid epidemic, as well as racial, health care and educational disparities. Building solidarity across social and political movements has been years in the making and must continue to take hold if we’re going to end the epidemic.
State Rep. Raghib Allie-Brennan represents the 2nd assembly district, serving constituencies in Bethel, Danbury, Newtown, and Redding.