Thousands Attend Opening of USCA 2011 in Chicago

An estimated 3,000 people--including HIV/AIDS advocates, policy experts, health care professionals, elected officials and people living with HIV/AIDS--arrived in Chicago for the 15th Annual United States Conference on AIDS (USCA 2011) Nov. 10-13. The conference, sponsored by the National Minority AIDS Council, is the largest HIV/AIDS gathering in the nation.


With the theme "Make Change Real: Unite. Speak. Act," the event opened right as the HIV/AIDS community stands at a crossroads. The Obama administration is preparing to implement the Affordable Care Act and the nation's first National HIV/AIDS Strategy. Exciting new biomedical interventions are expanding the prevention toolbox. But a global recession and a resurgence in conservative politics have pressured Congress and many state legislatures to reduce HIV/AIDS funding.

"A paradigm shift is happening with Black HIV/AIDS organizations," said Hank Millbourne, L.M.S.W., associate executive director of AIDS Partnership Michigan. "There are substantial questions about the long-term survival of these agencies. That's why the Black Treatment Advocacy Network's [BTAN] work is critical to move our community forward."

BTAN Holds Its National Meeting

USCA 2011 was preceded by a two-day leadership session and a national meeting of BTAN, a collaboration between the Black AIDS Institute, pharmaceutical company Merck and community organizations across the country. BTAN's mission is to train and mobilize HIV/AIDS-treatment advocates to educate Black Americans about care, prevention and treatment options. The campaign was launched in 2010 in Houston, Philadelphia and Jackson, Miss. Training sessions were recently held in Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

The presenters included Madeline Y. Sutton, M.D., M.P.H., of the Division of STD Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Key topics at the preconference: the challenge of implementing health-care reform, health literacy, and emerging biomedical prevention technologies such as PrEP, microbicides and "treatment as prevention."

"Multiple levels of responses" are needed across Black America to address the new technologies, said Dr. Sutton. "How do we increase health literacy among partners, families and friends? How can we get more faith communities involved? Sometimes it's as simple as starting a discussion with families over Thanksgiving dinner," she added.

Increasing Health Literacy

Many attending the meeting said that most people in their communities were unfamiliar with the new technologies.

"Postexposure prophylaxis [PEP] is part of the general conversation that White gay men are having around HIV prevention," said Danielle Houston, M.P.H., education manager for Houston's Center for AIDS Information & Advocacy. PEP consists of a "cocktail" of usually three or four antiretrovirals that must be taken almost immediately after possible exposure to HIV and for up to 30 days.

"They at least know how to do a Google search on 'PEP.' But it's almost never discussed as a prevention option among Black gay men or women. And we have pharmaceutical companies that are willing to donate the medications!" Houston added. "When you tell most Black people that it exists, it becomes mind-blowing. "

Alarming HIV Rates Among MSM

The target population of USCA 2011 was gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM). Black MSM continue to suffer most in the domestic epidemic. New HIV infections among Black MSM ages 13-29 rose an alarming 48 percent between 2006 and 2009, reports the CDC.

The opening plenary featured David Furnish, chair of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, as its keynote speaker. The plenary was moderated by CNN anchor Don Lemon--probably the nation's highest-profile Black gay man--and featured Arizona State Senator Jack Jackson, former Project Runway contestant Mondo Guerra and BeiBei Ye, director of the Zhixing Guangzhou LGBT Center in China.

The rising number of new HIV infections among Black MSM youths "has been the case for the last few years, but I'm very glad to see that it's getting some attention," said Isaiah Webster III, director of capacity building at the Washington, D.C.-based Metro TeenAIDS. "It's not often you see that in a conference plenary."

Recent news coverage and USCA 2011 have targeted the epidemic among Black gay men. But globally, heterosexual contact is the epidemic's primary method of transmission, as well as a disproportionate factor in Black America. Infection rates among Black women are nearly 15 times higher than those of white women, reports (pdf) the Kaiser Family Foundation.

"HIV prevention is difficult in Iowa, where African Americans are only 2.8 percent of the population but 56 percent of our state's HIV and AIDS cases," said Taz Clayburn, community-outreach coordinator at the AIDS Project of Central Iowa. "We're seeing a huge increase in infection rates among African American women. It is imperative to link those women to care. As Black women, we don't take care of ourselves; we take care of everybody else first.

"Since Iowa is considered a ‘low incidence' state, we've lost 55 percent of our prevention funding starting Jan. 1," Clayburn added. "I'm hoping the sessions will address funding disparities for African American women."

Indeed, funding disparities were a key theme among many women attending the conference.

"There is a huge divide between the face of the epidemic and the funding," said Amanda Lugg, director of advocacy at the New York City-based African Services Committee, and a sponsor in the exhibition hall. "Approximately 30 percent of the people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States are women. We want equitable funding and resource allocation. We also want more women and funding for women in clinical trials, such as PrEP and microbicides. We're going to succeed; women usually do."

Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News and NBC, and his reporting has appeared in Ebony, the Advocate, ColorLines and other media. Rod blogs on politics, pop culture and Black gay news at