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Walensky marks 40-year anniversary of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the US

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky testifies during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing to examine the Fiscal Year 2022 budget request for the CDC on May 19 in Washington.Greg Nash/Associated Press

Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Thursday marked the 40-year anniversary of the emergence of HIV/AIDS and said that while new cases have plummeted, much work remains in combating a disease that’s killed more than 32 million people.

In a statement, Walensky noted that new annual HIV infections dropped 73 percent from 1981, when the first CDC report of what would later be known as HIV was released, to 2019.

“Reductions are due to the decades-long work of and collaboration with scientists, patients, patient-advocates, and communities,” Walensky said. “Targeted programmatic efforts at the federal, state, territorial, tribal, and local levels have translated tremendous advancements in science and medicine into safe and effective interventions delivered to the people at risk.”


But Walensky, who served previously as chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, stressed that the battle against the virus is far from over, with troubling racial and geographic disparities still needing to be addressed.

She said it’s “unacceptable” that 37,000 people are newly diagnosed with HIV each year in the US.

“Disparities in diagnoses and access to treatment and prevention persist,” Walensky said. “Over half of new HIV infections are in the South, and new infections remain high among transgender women, people who inject drugs, and Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino gay and bisexual men.”

Walensky also touted her agency’s “Ending the HIV Epidemic in the United States” initiative, which she said charts a course to defeat the epidemic over the next decade.

“The scientific and clinical tools are available: testing, treatment, and prevention,” Walensky said. “We must fully fund and urgently and equitably implement what we know works, such as [prevention medication] PrEP distribution and education, syringe service programs, and an infrastructure for rapid response to potential HIV outbreaks.”


Tackling the issue head on, Walensky said, will honor the countless lives lost and affected by the health crisis.

“In doing so, we will honor all of those touched by this virus — from those five cases initially reported on June 5, 1981, to the 32 million people who have died from AIDS-related illness globally, including 730,000 people in this country, and so many more living with and fighting against the virus and its associated stigma every single day,” Walensky said.

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.