In his recent State of the Union speech, President Trump made an ambitious pledge in the area of public health: to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within ten years. The actual plan, released that week by the Department of Health and Human Services, aims to end new HIV infections by 2030. HHS proposes to do this by targeting “geographic hotspots”: forty-eight counties, plus Washington, DC and San Juan, Puerto Rico that account for more than 50 percent of new HIV diagnoses, as well as seven states with high rates of infection in rural areas. The plan calls for diagnosing the disease quickly, starting treatment as soon after as possible afterward, and increasing the use of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), a medication for people at high risk for HIV.
Researchers and HIV/AIDS advocates call the initiative aggressive but achievable, as all of its medical components—diagnostics, anti-retroviral therapies, PrEP—have been available for some time. However, many remain skeptical of the Trump administration’s actual level of commitment to ending HIV, given its ongoing assault on LGBTQ communities, immigrants, and people of color, populations with high rates of new infections. Furthermore, the administration has continually attacked and undermined the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid, making health insurance both more difficult to obtain and more expensive to use. Premiums continue to rise, and seven states have implemented work requirements that have had the effect of kicking people off Medicaid, with applications pending in eight more.
As both a social and a medical endeavor, public health must engage communities, where local norms and cultural attitudes can affect disease transmission. Take for example the recent measles outbreak in Clark County, Washington, a state that allows exemptions to mandatory vaccinations for medical, religious, and philosophical reasons. As NPR has reported, some schools have vaccination rates under 40 percent, rather than the 90 percent or so required for a community to be protected. Parents who are responding to inaccuracies and rumors on social media and from other parents forego vaccinations for their children, placing entire communities at risk. Combating such fears requires not only a tightening of applicable laws, but also a campaign to address vaccine misinformation in locations where it can itself spread like a virus.
If the Trump administration is truly committed to eradicating HIV, then it must combine social with medical approaches. It’s not enough simply to diagnose more people and subsidize new PrEP prescriptions. Resources must also go toward affordable housing, nutrition assistance, and counseling to ensure that patients are emotionally supported and are adhering to regimes of treatment. Stigma and discrimination remain obstacles to meaningful care in affected populations; any far-reaching plan must tackle social attitudes among those affected, including families and healthcare providers. We may have in hand the medical tools to end new transmissions, but success will not rest on these components alone. The Trump administration must understand this if it genuinely wants to succeed in its goal.