Reflections on National Asian & Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

Content From: Richard Wolitski, Ph.D., Director, Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy, U.S. Department of Health and Human ServicesPublished: May 18, 20185 min read


Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day logo

May 19 is the annual observance of National Asian & Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (#APIMay19). It’s a time for all of us to reflect on the impact that HIV has had on Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. It’s a time to remember those we’ve lost to HIV, to support the survivors who continue to fight for their lives, and to celebrate and lift up the heroes among us who have dedicated their lives to ending this epidemic. It also reminds us that no community has made it through the last three decades without losing family members and community members who were loved.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders account for a relatively small percentage of the American population. Accordingly, they make up small percentage of new HIV diagnoses and a small percentage of people living with HIV in the United States. The surveillance data tell only part of the story. Preventing HIV among Asians and Pacific Islanders and caring for those living with HIV are important aspects of our work to end HIV. Each infection that we prevent matters and so does the life of every person living with HIV.

A total of 1,032 Asian and Pacific Islanders were diagnosed with HIV in 2016 in the U.S. and its six dependent areas. The majority of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders diagnosed with HIV in 2016 were gay and bisexual men. The numbers of cases are small, but show a troubling increase between 2011 and 2015. Cases increased by 35% among Asian gay and bisexual men and by 50% among Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander gay and bisexual men. We do not know to what extent these represent true increases or if they are a byproduct of the methods used to estimate these cases and will no longer be evident next year when more data are included. Regardless of what next year’s report shows, we need to make sure that Asian and Pacific Islander gay and bisexual men are being reached and served with culturally appropriate information for those at risk for HIV and living with HIV.

When we look at data [PDF, 915KB] for people living with HIV who received medical care in the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program in 2016 we see results for Asian clients that are substantially better than average. Nationally, 84.9% of clients receiving HIV medical care were virally suppressed. Viral suppression was higher among Asian clients, with 92.3% having a viral load that was 200 copies/mL or less. Viral suppression among Pacific Islanders was almost exactly the same as the average (84.8% for Pacific Islanders vs 84.9% overall). These are encouraging data, especially for Asian clients, and show the benefits of high quality HIV medical care.

The theme for this year’s National Asian Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, “Love & Solidarity: Together PrEP, Testing, and Treatment Can End HIV,” underscores that we now have highly effective tools that can bring an end to HIV if we work together to deploy them successfully.

The most important thing is for everyone to know their HIV status. Everyone should be tested for HIV at least once. If you are at risk for HIV infection, even if you are using condoms or other risk reduction strategies, you should be tested for HIV at least once a year. You need to know your status to make the right decisions about your health. If you are negative, think about your risk, the effectiveness of the prevention strategies you are using, and how well they work for you. Maybe pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is right for you. Maybe another strategy would work better for you. If you haven’t used it, check out the CDC’s Risk Reduction Tool and see what you might be able to do to reduce your risk even further.

If you are living with HIV, know that you can take control of the virus. It should not have control of your life or your future. Today’s HIV medication can stop the virus from replicating and damaging your immune system. You should be able to be as healthy with HIV as you were without it by keeping your appointments with your health care provider and taking your HIV medication every time. If you achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load, you will stop HIV from damaging your immune system and have effectively no risk of sexually transmitting the virus to an HIV-negative partner. HIV treatments will not, however, protect you or your partner from other sexually transmitted infections.

Today, HIV treatment is safer and more effective than ever before. Don’t let what you might have heard about earlier treatments stop you from being tested or starting HIV treatment. Today’s HIV medications have profoundly changed what it means to be living with HIV and how to prevent it.

Know that you are loved and that there are people in your life and in the community who are there to support you. As an individual, you can take charge of your HIV risk and your health. You also have the power to help others. What will you do on National Asian & Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day to raise awareness, take charge of your health, express your love, stand in solidarity with people living with or at risk for HIV, and move us closer toward the vision of ending HIV among Asian and Pacific Islanders and others?